Sgt. Leandro A.S. Jasso was 'charismatic,' 'wonderful kid,' friends, mentors recall
WASHINGTON — Earlier this year, Sgt. Leandro A.S. Jasso and some of his closest friends happened to be in their hometown at the same time and reunited at a bar.
It was a special occasion: the 25-year-old Army Ranger was set to leave for his third deployment overseas.
Fearing for his safety during another long tour of duty, they asked him not to go. But it was to no avail.
“I knew he was doing what he loved,” recalled longtime friend David Sorensen, 25. “He always wanted to go and save people.”
Jasso, who was assigned to 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, was killed in action in Afghanistan on Saturday. Jasso was mortally wounded during a firefight with al-Qaida forces in Nimruz province, military officials have said. He was medically evacuated from the combat zone and later died of his injuries at a medical facility in Helmand province, the Pentagon has said.
In his short life, “Lando” left a deep, lasting impression on his hometown in central Washington state, friends and mentors said Monday.
Sorensen was stunned by the news.
“I couldn’t believe it, he was invincible,” he said. “Nobody could touch Lando.”
Jasso was remembered in the small town of Leavenworth on Monday as a bright, funny, driven and loving friend who made everyone feel special.
At Cascade High School, where Jasso attended, a moment of silence was held in his honor. And at the fire hall across the street from the school, where Jasso’s brother and several friends once worked, the flag was lowered to half-staff.
“It is heart wrenching. Lando was an incredibly charismatic human being… and it’s hard to imagine someone like that gone,” said Andrea Brixey, an English teacher at the high school. “It’s like you feel a hole open inside of you that you didn’t even know was there. He was a wonderful kid.”
Jasso was different, they said.
In elementary school, Jasso played with dinosaur toys while most kids ran outside during recess. He was an Eagle Scout who talked about joining the Army since he was a child. His nickname, which sometimes became “Lando Calrissian” for the character from his beloved Star Wars movies, resulted in part because some friends couldn’t pronounce his first name Leandro.
“He loved everybody, you will not meet one person who was his enemy,” Sorensen said. “From the second you met him, you just loved him. …He was incredibly smart. The other guys wanted to be cool and popular and he could care less about that.”
Brixey, who met Jasso when he was one of her 7th grade students at Icicle River Middle School, said he made an impression from the start, casually calling her by her first name, Andrea. It was a funny tradition that continued into high school where Brixey transferred to work.
“He always called me Andrea right from the beginning – I never had a kid do that before,” Brixey recalled.
Jasso and Brixey stayed in touch. She said Jasso wanted to join the military because he wanted to see the world and had some big goals.
He adored his family, and raved about his baby nephew born in recent years. Brixey said Jasso was “an old soul.”
“He was one of those people who sees everyone… He was very curious about what made people tick,” she said. “He was one of those people everybody thought that you are sure you are special to them. That’s how charismatic, private people roll.”
Jasso could also be the life of the party, Sorensen remembered. He loved 1980s rock bands such as Styx, Guns ‘n Roses and Bruce Springsteen. And his favorite karaoke song to perform was John Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane.”
“If you wanted to have a good time, you would hang out with Lando,” Sorensen said, laughing.
Jasso enlisted in the Army in 2012 and became an accomplished soldier, completing the Basic Airborne Course, earning the Combat Infantryman’s Badge and the much-sought after Ranger tab, the Army’s Special Operations Command has said.
Those accomplishments didn’t surprise Sorensen, who met Jasso in elementary school and they remained close friends since. They played on soccer, wrestling and football teams together, among other athletic pursuits.
“[That] dude was the hardest working man I have ever met in my entire life. It didn’t matter what he was doing, he was going to attack it 150 percent,” Sorensen said.
Lee Hankins, Jasso’s mentor and high school wrestling coach, said though Jasso had never wrestled before, he was strong.
Hankins said wrestlers would do large numbers of pushups as part of normal conditioning, and more pushups as punishment. Jasso never complained as he pushed, always with perfect form, he said.
“He would pop up, and he always looked like he could do even more,” said Hankins, who coached Jasso in 2011 and 2012, his junior and senior years.
Jasso wrestled at 160 pounds, and was always willing to learn, he said. Quite a few of his wrestlers joined the military, and Hankins said this helped Jasso, as he had a good idea of what he needed to do to succeed.
“He already knew what it took,” he said.
News of Jasso’s death spread quickly throughout the town of about 2,000 residents. Hankins learned the news through a text message from another coach.
“This is a small rural area, and it’s just devastating to hear,” he said. “I’m incredibly proud of the man he became and am extremely saddened by his loss.”
Some people in his hometown didn’t even know about all his honors, or that Jasso was deployed on his third tour, said his high school Principal Elia Ala’ilima-Daley. In a school of 440 students, it was important to mark his service for people who knew him and others who didn’t, Ala’ilima-Daley said.
“He was private, but proud of the work he was doing,” remembered Ala’ilima-Daley, who led Monday’s moment of silence in honor of Jasso at the school.
He said people at the school only found out about all his accomplishments when they learned of his death.
“He was humble. Just the kind of person who was there for his friends,” Ala’ilima-Daley said.
Jasso’s death raises the number of U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan this year to 10. Earlier this month, Maj. Brent Taylor of the Army National Guard was killed during an insider attack in Kabul that also injured another U.S. servicemember.
Most of the roughly 14,000 U.S. troops deployed to Afghanistan assist NATO’s training and advising mission, while a smaller amount help with the separate U.S. counterterrorism mission that targets terrorist groups such as al-Qaida and the local Islamic State affiliate.
About 2,400 American military personnel have been killed since the war in Afghanistan began in 2001 — fewer than 1,900 of them were killed in combat.
Stars and Stripes reporters J.P. Lawrence and Phillip Walter Wellman contributed to this story.