Sunday, October 10, 2010

Solemn Homecoming

Sgt. Richard Estudillo was recalled from Afghanistan for his father's final days.

He figured the Red Cross message was for someone else.

Before it came, just before 1400 hours on Tuesday, Sept. 21, Gunnery Sgt. Richard Grant Estudillo was studying a model of the terrain that surrounded his office in Helmond Province, Afghanistan.

“We were getting ready to do one more disruption,” Estudillo recalls. “The mission was to establish a stronger foothold and eliminate the IED threat, to free up movement for the battalion.”

He’s partly deaf in one ear, and he thought he heard it wrong. Then he opened the note. His father was in critical condition at the Stuart F. Meyer Hospice House, in Palm Coast. He had just days to live.

Estudillo, 36, has been a soldier longer than he was a civilian, having enlisted at 17, when he was still in high school in California.

“I’ve seen it so many times,” he says. “You just hope it’s not you. No one wants to leave their brothers in arms, or, obviously, have a family member pass or get hurt.”

But, as is the policy, Estudillo was immediately relieved of his duties. Someone else would have to follow through with making sure the ammunition was prepared, the spare fuel and other provisions ready for the troops. And someone else would have to drive the lead vehicle.

“I always take point,” Estudillo says. “My VIC (vehicle) is always the one with the mine roller, an IED deterrent. It’s an attachment — a trailer, about 20 feet long in front of the VIC, and about as wide as the lane. … My VIC is the one that’s going to get hit with an IED. If any anyone is going down, I’d rather it be me.”

But not on that day. His orders were to wait for the next plane back to the U.S. In the meantime, one of the locals gave the troops a tip that an IED was planted in the road, and a crew was sent out to investigate. Sure enough, they were able to execute a controlled detonation. Based on the size of the crater, it was determined to be the largest IED — 80 pounds — found in the region in the last two or three years.

After a few days of travel, Estudillo met up with five of his seven siblings, as well as his mother, Gail, in the Stuart F. Meyer Hospice House. Having traveled from all around the country, they gathered around their father’s bed and recalled some of the highlights of the life of their father, who has suffered two strokes and kidney complications.

The room bore an American flag, as well as other red-white-and-blue decorations. The staff at the hospice house also baked a cake for the family. And jazz music played in the background.

Enrique Estudillo, who grew up in the Philippines and was a union electrical contractor in San Francisco, was also a jazz musician, having played bass guitar in churches and other places, including the Stanley Hotel, in Estes Park, Colo., where the movie, “The Shining,” was filmed. He also played many times in Palm Coast after he and Gail moved here eight years ago. Their son, Joshua, played drums.

Raquel Estudillo, the youngest sibling, traveled from New Jersey to be with the family. She stood close to her father and said, “It was a really good fight. He really pushed himself.”

Enrique Estudillo died late on the night of Monday, Oct. 4. He was 66.

Richard Estudillo reflected on his mission in Afghanistan and the IED explosion.

“That would have been a catastrophic kill to my VIC, along the route I was supposed to take,” he says. “It’s not a glorious way to come home, but I also see this as my father saved my life. … My father taught us to live life to the fullest. It’s 50-50: You never know when it’s going to be your last day.”

NOTE: This story first appeared in The Palm Coast Observer.

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