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PRIVATE RUBEN ESTRELLA
U.S. ARMY

Private Ruben Estrella was Killed in Action on March 23, 2003, in Nasiriyah, Iraq.

Ruben Estrella was born in Juarez, Mexico and was the first child of Ruben Sr. and Amalia Estrella. His brother, Edgar Alejandro, was also born in Juarez and when Ruben was six the family moved to El Paso, Texas so the boys could get a better education. Once in El Paso, Ruben’s sister Cynthia was born and the family became permanent citizens as the children began their education in the United States.

Ruben was very athletic and in high school he played on the football team. He also enjoyed baseball but he was always more excited about the beginning of football season and contributing to the team.

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Growing up in El Paso he had a pit-bull named Porky and he loved playing with him outside. While it was the family dog, it was really Ruben that cared for the pooch. Handsome and athletic Ruben got along with everyone. The girls liked him and he found the girl he wanted to spend the rest of his life with. She was named Sonya.

“My son had plans for his future,” Ruben’s mother explained. “He wanted to study and become an architect or a math teacher. One day he sent for some information through the Internet about the Army and once he met up with a recruiter, he believed he was going to get an education and that is what he wanted. So, he was pretty excited about the Army. He was only seventeen years old when he took the exam and when he left for basic training he was eighteen so he did not need our permission and he was gone June 2002 to begin his new adventure.

“It was really a sad time for me because I really didn’t want him to go, so when he would call from basic training it was difficult. My children never spent a night anywhere else and I tried so hard to convince him this was going to mess up his plans. He would tell me, ‘Mom, this is what I want to do. Things change and I am ready to serve my country.’ I was very protective of my children when they were growing up. I worried they would get run over by a car if they went to the store. No matter how hard I tried to convince him there was no changing his mind. He kept telling me, ‘Mom, it is not like the movies. There is no war so you do not have to worry, I will be able to get the education I want and everything will be fine.’”

A young Estrella left for basic training and his parents were able to travel to South Carolina for his graduation.

“When I saw him, he looked so honored wearing his uniform,” Amalia Estrella recalled. “He was becoming a man but it was hard to let go of the child I raised. I was so proud of him. He told me, ‘Mom, I promise I will try to be home for Thanksgiving.’”

The young soldier did come home for Thanksgiving that year and he did not return to his base until January 2003.

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Because Ruben felt so close to his mother, he did not want her to worry so he never told her he had received his orders to go to Iraq. He told his mother he was going to Germany, which was not true. When he went home his last time he went with a new friend, Edgar Hernandez, and they were in full military attire ready to report to the airport to travel to Kuwait where they would prepare gear before the invasion into Iraq. Ruben’s father painted cars and Edgar left his car there for a paint job. He said he would return to pick it up once they got back from overseas.

His girlfriend was there to see him off and she would take Edgar and Ruben to the airport but Ruben would not let his mother go see him off probably because she would have known he was not going to Germany.

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His mom would later hear that he did tell his girlfriend Sonya he was going to Iraq and he did not want his mom to know so she would not worry. He also spoke to his father from the airport and because the war had not started, he told his dad they were going to Iraq to drop off supplies and did not know much else about his orders. But no one ever told his mom and she would always believe he was in Germany.

Amalia Estrella worried her son didn’t have enough training before being shipped overseas.

After basic training, which is three months long, Ruben went to Virginia for two months of training in his field, which was related to computers. Then he went home for the holidays and then off to war. He arrived in Kuwait on February 19, 2003, which is where the ground troops would enter into Iraq on March 20.

“I do not think he was ready,” a sad mom said. “He should have had more training before going into a combat zone but as you can see from the day he went to the Army in June 2002 to the day he died in combat on March 23, 2003 in Nasiriyah, Iraq, it was not even one year."

“When the Army came to inform me that my son was missing in action (MIA) in Iraq, I did not want to believe them because I thought my son was in Germany so I was very confused. They had not found his body and he was MIA until his body was recovered.”

A female Lieutenant would come to the families home every day and update them during the time he was missing. The family was informed 13 days later that his body was found.

“I would see Edgar Hernandez on TV. He left my house with my son so during this time I was thinking my son must be hiding somewhere because he was not part of the group of POW’s that were captured with Edgar. This was a difficult time for me. I struggled not knowing and not wanting to believe it was real. I was in my room watching TV and the news was on and they mentioned the loss of a Texas veteran and that is when the Lieutenant told me. To this day I can’t remember much after I was told they had found my son’s body.”

His body was buried outside the hospital where they took Jessica Lynch—the female soldier that was taken captive after being seriously injured in the ambush that killed her son Ruben. The U.S. Special Forces who raided the hospital where she was being held also recovered the bodies of eight of Lynch’s fellow soldiers and Ruben was one of those bodies.

The story of the ambush that killed a young Estrella began in the dead of night in the Iraq desert of Nasiriyah, three days into Operation Iraqi Freedom, where seven U.S. soldiers gathered together, joking with one another. Sadly, only two of those soldiers would ever return home.

“People were talking about dying,” remembered U.S. Army Specialist Edgar Hernandez, age 21. “Some of those same people who talked about dying were killed in combat.”

Later, back in his truck eating an enchilada MRE (Meals Ready-to-Eat), a delicacy and a reminder of home for the soldiers, Hernandez was joined by his best friend, Private Ruben Estrella, age 18. Desperate for an enchilada MRE of his own, Estrella tore the back of the truck apart in vain while the two buddies talked about the impending battle.

“Did you hear about the unit that was ambushed?” Estrella asked. “What if that happens to us?”

“Don’t worry,” Hernandez retorted. “We’re going to be OK.”

Dropping any kind of brave front, Estrella confessed, “I’m scared, Dude.”

A group of 18 trucks not certain of their exact position made up the convoy. Driving down Highway 8, code- name Route Blue, the soldiers could see the city lights as they approached a fork in the road. Now deserted, the terrain was earlier manned by U.S. troops to guide soldiers in the right direction. Without assistance, the convoy went the wrong way.

On the morning of March 23, 2003, the convoy approached the city of Nasiriyah. Close to 5AM, the countryside was very quiet with the exception of barking dogs. Driving underneath the bright blue sun, the convoy passed a military checkpoint.

“These were Iraqi guards and they had AK-47 assault rifles. They were waving at us,” Hernandez recalled.

With most of the convoy trucks in need of gas and the group’s tanker empty, it was apparent the soldiers were lost.

All of a sudden, First Sergeant Anthony Pierce, age 31, came down along the convoy telling everyone to “lock and load!” Only those with radios knew the convoy was in enemy territory and about to be attacked.

“That’s when the back of our convoy started taking fire, Hernandez recalled vividly. “And that’s when the First Sergeant in the rear of the convoy called the commander in the front and told him they were taking fire. Things picked up dramatically. The command was given for everyone to move.

“Without a radio, I never heard the gunfire and did not know we were being attacked. Before making the U-turn, I saw Estrella and other soldiers stuck. The sides of the roads were muddy because it had rained the night before. I was saying to myself, ‘Come on guys, let’s go,’” stated Hernandez.

Luckily, Estrella got out of the mud but there were others who didn’t and died.”

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“I was racing down a four-lane highway driving past morning traffic,” explained Hernandez. “I was honking and getting fired on by AK-47s and we were receiving RPG fire from everywhere. I could hear the bullets bouncing off our vehicle. Then a dump truck got in front of me and would not let me pass. Iraqi soldiers with AK-47s kept popping out, shooting at us and I panicked. That’s when I hit the brakes really hard and we almost got killed in an accident.”

Hernandez and Spc Shoshana Johnson found themselves stuck halfway down an embankment, jackknifed. All of the remaining convoy trucks were passing them by still taking fire from every direction as Johnson was yelling, “Let’s go! Let’s go!”

“I saw three vehicles pass me,” Hernandez recounted. “I saw Estrella pass me. He looked at me and yelled, ‘Lets go!’”

Estrella, who had driven past, headed toward the Euphrates River Bridge and ran into an Iraqi tank and was killed instantly.

“He loved laughing.” Ruben’s heartbroken mother recalled. “He was very funny and enjoyed playing games that would make others laugh. We were very close. He would say, “Mom, lets go dancing.’ When he would write from basic training he told me how much he missed me and called me his best friend. We talked about anything and it was very hard on me to this day. When he would come home from a date we would sit on the sofa and just talk.”

Ruben’s brother Edgar is now married. He was just 16 when his big brother died. He has worried about his mother because she has been so sad all these years and they are expecting there first born whom they will name Ruben. They know he can’t bring his brother back but anything that could put a smile on his mom’s face is so imperative.

“I think it is so important that we remember all our war heroes that went off to battle not knowing if they would ever return. Many gave the ultimate sacrifice, mom explained. If you ask me today why did your son die? I would not have an answer for you because I don’t know why he died. I would have been happier if I knew the mission was just, but we are only fighting for the petroleum they produce. We are no longer living, only existing day to day. Everything has changed.”

These brave heroes were killed in the ambush at Nasiriyah, Iraq on March 23, 2003:

Chief Warrant Officer Johnny Villareal Mata, El Paso, Texas
First Sergeant Robert J. Dowdy, Cleveland, Ohio
Staff Sergeant George Edward Buggs, Barnwell, S. Carolina

Sergeant Donald R. Walters, Kansas City, Missouri
Specialist Jamaal R. Addison, Roswell, Georgia
Specialist Edward J. Anguiano, Brownsville, Texas
Specialist James M. Kiehl, Des Moines, Iowa
Private First Class Howard Johnson II, Mobile, Alabama

Private First Class Lori Piestewa, Tuba City, Arizona
Private First Class Brandon U. Sloan, Bedford, Ohio
Private Ruben Estrella, El Paso, Texas

— Story and Interview by: Alfredo Perez

Edgar Hernandez: An American Hero - download full PDF of entire book here

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