FORT WASHINGTON – In 2005, 21-year-old Emily Perez marched proudly with a group of her fellow West Point cadets in President George W. Bush’s second inaugural parade.
Twenty months later, the body of Army 2nd Lt. Perez was returned to West Point to be buried, the first female West Point graduate to die in Iraq. She was killed leading a convoy mission, when a bomb exploded near her Humvee, according to official reports.
Tuesday her parents, Vicki Perez, 55, and Daniel Perez, 50, traveled to Washington for the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama. Though they are Obama supporters, they have a separate reason for attending — to share the experience Emily had four years earlier and touch a piece of their daughter’s life.
“She felt very honored,” her mother remembered. “I was like, ‘Emily, why?’ because I just didn’t agree with the (Bush) administration’s policies. But she said, ‘Mom, this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing.’ She just felt honored to do it as part of the corps.”
Vicki Perez wrote to everyone from Maryland Sens. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Ben Cardin, D-Md., to Gov. Martin O’Malley requesting tickets to the Obama inauguration, with no luck. She’d nearly given up hope when she received an unexpected answering machine message from Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville.
“His office left a message that he didn’t want to give (tickets) to just anyone,” she said. “He thought that he would give them to the fallen heroes, to those families.”
No one could be reached at Hoyer’s office Tuesday for comment.
The young soldier, by all accounts, was an exceptional woman. She graduated from Oxon Hill High School among the top 10 students of the class of 2001, and among the top 10 percent of her West Point class. She donated her bone marrow, and volunteered her time to help HIV/AIDS victims.
She was also the youngest Medical Service Corps officer to travel to all U.S. military bases in Iraq.
Her parents didn’t know that until after she died, when the National Collegiate Athletic Association researched Emily’s military career before naming her recipient of its Award of Valor in 2008.
“She kept the fact that she was a convoy leader a secret,” her mother said. “She and I had a very close relationship, and so she kept that from me because she didn’t want me to worry.”
But Emily did prepare her parents for the worst.
“She said if something happens you’re going to get two people knocking at your door,” her father said. “They’ll be in dress greens. One’s going to be a chaplain, and one’s going to be an officer.”
They came to the door in September 2006.
In the years since then the Perezes have worked to keep their daughter’s legacy alive. Their Fort Washington home is filled with photographs, trophies and other mementos of her life and achievements.
In 2006, they began the Emily J.T. Perez Foundation, providing scholarships and mentoring for young women.
When the Obama family stepped into the limelight in the early days of the presidential campaign, Vicki Perez saw a reflection of the daughter she’d lost.
“The oldest girl (10-year-old Malia Obama) really reminds me of Emily,” she said. “Just watching her, I see she and her mother are very close. And the confidence that she shows — she reminds me a lot of Emily.”
On Tuesday, the Perezes boarded a Metro train to the Capitol to join millions of people watching the Obamas become the new first family of the United States.
Though they never made it into the Capitol area — their tickets were for the Silver Gate, which authorities closed before the ceremony began — Vicki Perez said that the experience of being nearby was enough.
“Just being around the people — it was love, high expectations, all of that running heart-to-heart. No matter where you were, you felt the energy,” she said. “I was able to hear the crowd roar when he took the oath.”
Imagining that moment, Vicki Perez said she feels hope for the future of all American soldiers now caught up in the war in the Middle East.
“This whole process has renewed my faith as far as our government is concerned. It gives me hope … that our soldiers will come home, and very, very soon. And that this cloud that’s been over our nation will be lifted.”