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Slain G.I. a soldier, father who 'wanted to be an example people could look up to'
U.S. Army Sgt. Rocky Herrera often joked about being the "good" and "best looking" son. He loved grilling steaks and drinking Budweiser beer with his brother. He also enjoyed camping with his sons.
But above all, his relatives say Herrera believed in being the best soldier and leader he could be - even if it meant dying for his country. Herrera was killed Monday in a roadside suicide bombing in Afghanistan, relatives said Wednesday. The Salt Lake City native was 43.
"He always wanted to be in charge," said 22-year-old Matt Herrera, Rocky Herrera's son. "He wanted to be an example people could look up to."
While his unit was building a bridge, Herrera was killed when the soldiers were approached by a vehicle that later detonated. Two other U.S. soldiers died and six others were injured, relatives said.
After serving in Iraq a few years ago, Herrera departed for his Afghanistan tour in May. He left behind his wife, Traci; daughter, Clarissa, 16; step-daughter, Tristan, 20 - all who live in Fort Lewis, Wash., where Herrera was stationed. Herrera's sons Matt, 22, and Mark, 20, live in Salt Lake City.
Elaine Herrera, his mother, said she expected her son to return home sometime in early 2008. The family had already talked about taking a trip to Yellowstone National Park to celebrate his homecoming.
Instead, she said her other son, Angelo, came to give her the grim news Tuesday morning. Military officials came to her home later that evening.
Elaine Herrera said she sent her son a letter two days ago "to perk him up." The last time she spoke to him was about a week ago, and "he just told me that he loved me." Although she's been praying "for God to keep him safe and send him back to us," Elaine Herrera said she finds comfort in her son's dedication to serve his country.
"Rocky believed in what he was doing," she said wiping away tears. "And he had to protect his troops because it was his job."
Angelo Herrera, 40, said he doesn't know where to start, but he's hoping he can get 900 South re-named after his older brother. Elaine Herrera and her late husband, Henry "Chick" Herrera, moved into their house about 900 South and 1100 West some 40 years ago and reared their three kids there.
"I figure since he gave his life for his country, we can at least make a tribute to him," Angelo Herrera said as he drank a Budweiser in the backyard of his mom's house and visited with relatives on Wednesday.
Rocky Herrera was the eldest of three children. He started boxing when he was 9 years old, trained at Montoya's Boxing Club and eventually competed as an amateur boxer in the Utah area until he was about 25. He graduated from West High School. In his 20s, he joined the military and later left Salt Lake City about 10 years ago.
His relatives describe Rocky Herrera as easy going with a "special smile." He liked betting on football; his favorite team was the Miami Dolphins. He loved hunting deer and fishing.
Angelo Herrera, said his brother never worried and always tried to put a positive spin on negative situations. When there was a problem, Rocky would often joke that at least they had beer.
"He always looked at the lighter side," Angelo Herrera said.
For Matt Herrera, losing his father feels unreal.
He said he's still in shock about the news - he thought it could never happen to their family. Now, he is remembering all the good times they shared: bowling nights, going to the movies and a trip to Disneyland years ago.
He can't bear to think of family gatherings without his dad there.
"Every time he came to visit he told me he was proud of me and everything I had done."
Some of Rocky Herrera's relatives plan to be in Fort Lewis next week for a memorial service for him and the other soldiers. A service in Salt Lake City is being planned.