U.S. Army 2nd Lieut. Emily Perez, 23, was buried Tuesday at West Point, on a high bluff overlooking the Hudson River, alongside two centuries of fallen graduates from the United States Military Academy. She was the first combat death from the 2005 graduating class called "the class of 9/11" because they arrived at the prestigious school just two weeks before the terror attacks. She was also the first female West Point graduate to be killed in Iraq.
She died an ordinary death in Iraq, at least by today's standards: a roadside bomb exploded as she led her platoon in a convoy south of Baghdad on Sept. 12. But what makes this death so difficult in a sea of violence is just how extraordinary this particular soldier was.
I spent a month at West Point reporting for our May 2005 cover story on her fellow cadets in the class of 9/11. I never met Perez in my time there, but I recognize many of her qualities in the friends I made at the academy. They are kids who could have chosen any path in life, but instead turned down elite civilian universities to volunteer for the privations of a military college and an ensuing five-year commitment to the Army.
Even at a school of overachievers, Perez's friends and teachers say that she stood out. She held the second-highest rank in her senior class, and, as Brigade Command Sergeant Major, was the highest-ranking minority woman in the history of West Point. She set school records as a sprinter on the track team, led the school's gospel choir, tutored a number of other students and even helped start a dance squad to cheer on the football and basketball teams. Professors wanted her to be in their classes, soldiers wanted her to lead their cadets, underclassmen wanted to catch a little bit of the unstoppable drive that pushed her to meet and exceed the many challenges the academy throws at its students.
"People often say only good things about someone after they've died, but none of this is hyperbole," says Morten Ender, her faculty advisor in the Sociology Program at West Point. "Emily was amazing."
"She was a star among stars," is how classmate Meagan Belk puts it. "You just never would have imagined this would happen to her."
Yolanda Ramirez-Raphael, her roommate at West Point, says that Perez's accomplishments in life all stemmed from an unshakeable self-confidence. "She didn't worry about whether someone liked her or not," says Ramirez-Raphael. At male-dominated West Point, she says, "women will sometimes try to change their leadership style, but not Emily. She always got right to the point."