Canyon Lake mourns its first casualty of war
Lance Cpl. Tony Leigh Hernandez was one of the Marines on the CH-53E Super Stallion that went down in Iraq last Wednesday, killing 31 soldiers.
According to military sources, the helicopter was conducting security operations near the Jordanian border. At 1:20 a.m., the transport went down near Rutbah, a town 220 miles west of Baghdad.
The cause of the crash is still pending, but weather reports at the time of the incident showed heavy sandstorms near the crash site.
Hernandez was crew chief on the transport helicopter which was carrying soldiers from the 1st Marine Division and one Naval personnel.
Back in his hometown of Canyon Lake, family and friends were shocked to learn of Hernandez' death.
Master Gunnary Sgt. Chester Martinez remembers Tony as a cadet in the Smithson Valley High School's JROTC program.
The program began in 2001 and Tony was one of the first students to enroll.
Martinez said he remembers Tony as a happy person who loved life. He added that it was Tony's desire to join the Marines, but that he would need to trim down.
Martinez explained that the weight requirement to enlist in the Marine program was 220 to 225 pounds. He said that Tony needed to lose about 30 pounds to make it in.
"Tony did that," Martinez said. "He lost the weight and went to boot camp."
Upon completing Marine boot camp, Martinez said Tony came to visit him at the high school.
"I was walking down the hall and I heard someone calling, 'Master Gunny, Master Gunny,'" Martinez recalled. "I didn't recognize him at first, but then he said that he was Tony, and I said, 'Where's the rest of you?'"
"Tony was a great man," Martinez said. "I'm proud to have known him."
Martinez was also sure to add that the helicopter Hernandez was assigned to was the most expensive helicopter that the Marines operate, and it is no small task to earn a spot on the transport, especially as crew chief.
Over at the local barber shop, Nancy Phippeny owner of Dave's Barber Shop, remembers Tony fondly.
As she tried holding back the tears, she said that Tony was always able to make you feel like you were special.
"Whenever I would go to the Dairy Queen, he would come from behind the counter to give me a hug," she said.
The barber shop was on Tony's running route and Phippeny said Tony would wave at her as he would run by. She also said Tony would stop by to visit even when he didn't need a haircut.
"He became like a relative," she said.
LeRoy Hernandez, father of the fallen soldier, said he didn't want Tony to go into the Marines, but because he served as a Naval door gunner in Vietnam, it's hard not to try to follow in father's footsteps.
Mr. Hernandez said he son was plannning on coming home in March. Now, all he can do is try to recall the memories he has of his son.
He said that Tony was dedicated to the Marines and believed in what he was doing.
"I think Tony was doing what he believes in," his father said. "It's unfortunate that the price of freedom has to be paid by our youth."
Tony's mother remembers a youthful son who liked to laugh and play practical jokes, but says "he was every mother's dream."
She said that Tony planned on renewing his vows to his wife so they could have a big wedding that the whole family could participate in.
His brothers, Chris and Charlie, remember Tony as being the headlocking, noogie-knuckling brother who was always up for a good laugh.
Mr. Hernandez said he sends his condolences to the families of the other Marines who lost their lives along with his son.
The Canyon Lake Post Office has graciously said they will accept letters of support for the family at the following address:
1300 FM 2673
Canyon Lake, TX