Army pilot's body returned to Rio Grande Valley
Members of the honor guard carry the flag-draped casket of U.S. Army Warrant Officer Jose Luis Montenegro Jr. after his body arrived Sunday, Sept. 16, 2012, at McCreery Aviation in McAllen, Texas. Montenegro was stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., and was serving his third tour of duty overseas when his helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan's Logar province.
SAN JUAN — Liliana Montenegro collapsed in tears Sunday morning outside McAllen’s McCreery Aviation with her head on the flag-draped casket of her brother, U.S. Army Warrant Officer 2 Jose Luis Montenegro.
In another week, Jose Montenegro would have come home for good.
Instead, the 32-year-old pilot’s third tour of duty ended early, when his helicopter was shot down Sept. 5 in the Logar Province of eastern Afghanistan. Warrant Officer 2 Thalia Ramirez, 28, of San Antonio, was also killed in the crash.
The Afghanistan International Security Assistance Force announced Sunday that the Taliban commander believed to be responsible for the attack was taken into custody as part of a joint operation between Afghan and coalition forces.
Meanwhile, hundreds turned to welcome the fallen soldier back to his family’s home in San Juan. Family and friends gathered on the tarmac in McAllen to watch Honor Guard soldiers unload Jose Montenegro’s casket off a plane from Dover Air Force Base. His sister and mother, Reyna Torres, hugged each other as they cried.
San Juan police, city officials and Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD security stood in salute. Local Veterans of Foreign Wars and America’s Last Patrol volunteers lined up with flags and motorcycles to accompany the fallen soldier. Pharr and San Juan residents lined up on roadways as the motorcade drove east.
Coworkers of Torres turned out to show their support, remembering her sharing stores of her son at PSJA ISD, where she works as a security guard. Torres loved to relay details of his emails to the others and was delighted to tell them how he took her as his date to a serviceman’s ball, said Nora Mendiola and Estela Martinez.
“That’s all she did was talk about him,” Mendiola said.
Mendiola was devastated to hear the news of Jose Montenegro’s death. Her own son, Air Force Sgt. Thomas Lehew, returned safely from battle only two weeks ago.
“My son and her son were in Afghanistan at the same time, so it hit me hard,” she said.
Montenegro is the 39th armed forces member from the Rio Grande Valley to have been killed while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan since March 2003. In all, 3,171 service members have been killed in Afghanistan, including 2,113 from the United States.
'He wanted to fly'
Friends from across the country remembered the soldier — Jose to some, Monte to others — as a dedicated friend, constantly teasing, with a quick laugh and a smile that could light up a room.
The Brownsville native grew up largely in the Houston area and graduated from Clear Lake High School in 1999. He joined the Army after graduation and it immediately became his calling, friends and family said.
“He wanted to help his family out and he loved serving his country,” said Jesus Rodriguez, who was Montenegro’s platoon sergeant when he enlisted.
In January 2000, Jose Montenegro met a fellow soldier named Heather Sanchez during processing at Fort Hood.
“I remember him making fun of me in formation and somehow we ended up in processing dental together,” Sgt. 1st Class Sanchez said in an email. “After that day we were inseparable. Nine months later we decided to go during lunch to the courthouse and get married! We were only 19 years old.”
The couple spent much time apart in deployments to different parts of the world and ended up divorcing in 2007, but remained friends, Sanchez said. She remembered her former husband most for his love of his mother, sister, niece and nephews and dog Adonis.
“We were kids when we met and grew up in the Army together,” she said, writing from Djibouti in the Horn of Africa. “He would do anything for family and friends.”
Jose Montenegro served three tours overseas. In 2004, he was shot in the arm in Iraq, his sister said.
State Trooper Oscar X. Gutierrez of Raymondville was with Jose Montenegro for their first deployment from Fort Hood.
“We were both team leaders,” Gutierrez said in an email. “If I kicked down a door he was the first one in and I followed. If he kicked down the door I was in and he followed right behind me. We had each other’s back.”
When they returned from that deployment, both men filled out applications to join the Texas State Troopers. But Jose Montenegro had a last-minute change of heart.
“He withdrew his application and told me he wasn’t done fighting,” Gutierrez said. “That he wanted to fly, and he did. He told me to hold his application for him for when he got back, and I did.”
Jose Montenegro became a pilot and a warrant officer, stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C. Kina Wilken, one of his friends there, remembered him, as others did, for his sense of humor.
“He would tease me about being a Yankee and a General’s daughter, and actually not being too bad,” she said in an email. “He would say there is never a reason to be in a bad mood – (the) best part of your day is you woke up, and maybe with a smile.
“I still wake up with a smile, just because of that.”
Elizabeth Findell can be reached at email@example.com / (956) 683-4428.