Remembering a hero

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Independence Day last Thursday marked 10 years since U.S. Army Pfc. Justin Casillas died a hero fighting in the war in Afghanistan.

The 2008 Pierce High School graduate was 19 years old when he and Pfc. Aaron Fairbairn, of Aberdeen, Wash., were killed July 4, 2009, after insurgents attacked Combat Outpost Zerok in eastern Afghanistan using small arms and mortar fire.

Casillas was a paratrooper who had been deployed only four months with the 3rd Battalion, 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), of the 25th Infantry Division, based at Fort Richardson, Alaska.

The surprise attack that killed him and Fairbairn, who was from the same unit, injured seven other U.S. soldiers, Pentagon officials said at the time.

Born on Memorial Day, May 28, 1990, Casillas knew he would follow in the footsteps of other family members who served in the armed forces. His great uncle, Army Pfc. David M. Gonzales was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for trying to dig out his fellow soldiers following a bomb blast in the Philippines during World War II, where he was shot and killed. On April 1, 1945, Joe Casillas, Justin’s grandfather, was part of the invasion of Okinawa, Japan, and participated in the battle of Shinto Castle, near the capital city of Naha.

In high school, Casillas participated in FFA and played baseball and football, and often displayed the kind of grit he showed on the battlefield. On Independence Day the year after he graduated, his camp came under direct assault, and part of the fighting, including footage of Casillas firing a mortar as part of a two-person team, was filmed.

Lt. Mike Bassi, in an interview filmed by troops after Casillas’ death, said the 19-year-old ran into incoming fire three different times: one to get a fire mission in order to return fire on the enemy. The second time he ran into fire was to retrieve Fairbairn, who was injured in the mortar pit. The third time was to carry Fairbairn to get medical help.

As he carried his friend and fellow soldier through enemy fire on his shoulders, a mortar round landed about five feet away, killing them both.

“Justin paid the ultimate sacrifice for this country while trying to save a fellow paratrooper,” the senior officer said in a letter to Casillas’s mother, Donna. “(His) actions on July 4, 2009, speaks volumes on his character. Justin most definitely has left a lasting impression on me and on the entire company.”

In 2015, Pierce High School honored Casillas by presenting the “Honor and Remember” flag to his family. He was also honored with a Peace Pole at Arbuckle Elementary School, and his name is inscribed on veteran memorials in Colusa and Arbuckle. Casillas has also received the Silver Star, Bronze Star, War on Terrorism Service Metal, Good Conduct Metal, and the Purple Heart.

Although 65 of Colusa County’s young men were killed in action, only Casillas was killed in a war still going on a decade after his death.

Army Pvt. Reuben “Boy” J. Lopez, 3rd Combat Team, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 10th Mountain Division was killed in Afghanistan on Aug. 11, 2011.

Their sacrifice has not been forgotten.