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Fallen soldier from Williams left letters for family
A year ago Monday, Rueben "Boy" Lopez was in southern Afghanistan as part of the Army's 10th Mountain Division, assigned to the 32nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Combat Team.
Exactly when, perhaps in the early morning hours or perhaps late at night, Lopez took paper and pen in hand and wrote a letter he hoped would never be read.
"I want this read at my funeral," instructions at the top of the letter reads.
The letter then goes on to express Lopez's commitment to his life as a soldier and his commitment to his faith.
"I lived as a soldier and went to war without looking back. I am proud to say I left this world surrounded by the same soldiers that are fighting for the right, we call Freedom," the letter reads. "According to God's will, I lived my life to the fullest, and now I live on with him."
Lopez states he wrote the letter on Feb. 13, 2011, almost six months to the day when he and four others — Sgt. Edward Frank, Spc. Jameel Freeman, Spc. Patrick Lay and Spc. Jordan Morris — were killed by a roadside bomb in Kandahar province on Aug. 11.
Lopez, a private, was 27 years old.
The letter, and two others — one he wrote to his mother and one to his family — were not discovered until after Lopez, who grew up in Williams, was buried with military honors at Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery in Colusa on Aug. 23.
Lopez had left the letters and some other personal effects with a friend at Fort Drum, N.Y.
His sister, Letti Lopez-Caldwell, said Josh Lepare had contacted a family member about the belongings.
"He said he did not feel right just mailing it," Caldwell said. "He thought it should be hand-delivered, and he wanted to be the one to do that."
So when the Lopez sisters went back to Fort Drum for a ceremony last fall, the letters were hand-delivered.
His mother, Gloria Estrada, received her letter — one of the three Lopez had written — a day or two later.
"I was at my daughter's house," Estrada said. "I just broke down when I read the first line. I just lost it."
It reads, "Dear mom, if you are reading this, I am no longer in this life with you ..."
Estrada has chosen to keep the rest of the letter private, sharing it only with family members.
It is one of the few things this family has not shared with a community that rallied around them in their darkest days.
Some of Lopez's belongings are still on display as part of the Sacramento Valley Museum's Veterans Room, which Estrada encourages people to visit.
Although Lopez had returned home on leave in late February, there was no mention of the letters, and he seemed like the "Boy" everyone knew: Upbeat, full of life and looking toward a future in which he would live close to his family and eager to start his own.
"I think we were all shocked that he had written the letters," his sister Monica Palmer said, "like he had an inkling of what was to come."
His mother agrees.
"I think he knew how dangerous it was going to be, and I think he knew in his heart he would not be coming home," Estrada said.
But no one in the family believes Lopez wrote any of the letters for himself.
"I thank my brother for leaving the letters. He is at peace with it, and he is just making sure his family is. He was still taking care of his family," Caldwell said.
Ironically, another member of Lopez's unit had left a package for his family with him.
It came to Estrada with some other personal effects, and not knowing what was in the package, she sent it on to the intended family in Virginia, along with a letter explaining who she was and a little about her son.
Fortunately, that family's son is alive and well.
Caldwell's brother-in-law, Brett Caldwell, has told the family he had written a similar letter during his two tours in Iraq, but Lopez's sister, Kelly, who also served two tours and was recently honorably discharged, said she never did.
Nor did another brother-in-law, Matt Palmer, who also served two tours.
For the family members, it no longer matters why Lopez chose to write the letters.
"I'm just happy to have it," Monica Palmer said. "I think it is a gift to us."
But the story does not end there.
Estrada said it is not enough that the community knows about her son. There are other soldiers, other families who have made sacrifices, and they too need to be honored.
That starts at home for Estrada, who hopes to have a Peace Pole placed at Pierce High School in honor of Justin Casillas, who was killed in Afghanistan in July 2009.
Casillas was honored posthumously with a Silver Star during a ceremony held June 21, 2009, in Arbuckle.
Casillas's unit had come under heavy enemy fire on the morning of July 4.
Casillas, just 19, put himself at risk several times, bravely running through the open battle field without cover to relay mission instructions between command staff and his fellow paratroopers.
He was killed attempting to carry a wounded friend to a medical unit.
The Peace Pole has special meaning for Estrada because it represents what the soldiers are fighting for, and not the fighting.
One was placed at Williams Elementary School in remembrance of Lopez.
"Rueben went into the Army as a warrior for peace," Army Capt. Renee Marie told the students during the November ceremony.