The fondest memory Tracey Vasquez has of her son is listening to him laugh as he watched television in his room.
One day, he was watching Phantom of the Opera and burst out of the room sporting his boxers and belting out songs from the famous French classic.
“He was just a goofy boy,” said Vasquez.
In 2011, Vasquez’s son, Manuel Vasquez made one of the most important decisions of his young life. Inspired by following in the footsteps of his older brother Marcus who joined the Marines, he and his cousin decided they would enlist in the U.S. Army.
But, their plans were disrupted by destiny.
“His brother ended up breaking his hip and getting discharged from the Marines and his cousin didn’t make it through the Army training. He was the only one that made it, so we were very, very proud of him,” recalls Vasquez.
When Specialist Manuel Vasquez, a West Sacramento native, packed his bags and headed to war in Afghanistan, he didn’t hesitate. He wanted to serve his country.
While he was away for several months Tracey would occasionally receive a phone call from her son assuring her he was okay. She tracked him on Facebook and panicked every time he wouldn’t log in for more than a couple of days.
“It was those moments that my heart would instantly begin to race and the worst would come to mind and I would just lose it,” she said.
But one day, those emotions of fear became all too real. It was late in the evening, when a U.S. army car pulled up her driveway. It was not a relative. It wasn’t a friend. It was the bearer of bad news.
My son left as a boy and came back a man. You could see it in his eyes.
Tracey Vasquez, mother of Specialist Manuel Vasquez who died in Afghanistan
“It’s that one knock on the door that no mother ever wants to receive. It’s the knock that you know means that a man in a uniform is going to deliver some news—and it’s certainly not to tell you how great your son has been doing, but that something else, terribly bad has happened,” said Vasquez.
The news was indeed devastating.
Specialist Vasquez, at 22-years-old, was killed in action while serving in the U.S. Army on April 24, 2012 in Afghanistan.
Although his mother was heart-broken by the news— and it took her an enormous amount of time to heal the pain of her loss, she has been strongly fighting to keep his memory alive.
At a special ceremony at the California Museum last Monday, Vasquez shared intimate memories of her son at the grand opening of “Remembering Our Fallen from California” a traveling memorial honoring California troops from all branches of the U.S. military who have died while serving their country since September 11, 2001.
The display is currently at the California Museum and will be showcased through April 22. It serves as a reminder and a testament of the ultimate sacrifice paid by the state’s military personnel. The memorial honors 727 Californians who have perished in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars through a display of personal stories and military photographs.
At the ceremony, Vasquez was not the only one remembered, but also Corporal Patrick Tillman, a 27-year old native of San José who left his professional football career to join the U.S. Army and was killed in action on April 22, 2004 in Afghanistan and Sergeant Keicia Hines, a 27-year-old resident of Citrus Heights who was also killed in action while serving in the U.S. Army on January 14, 2004 in Iraq.
This memorial is a reminder that we should not take war lightly. The cost of war is heavy.
Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara
The traveling memorial aims to honor those who have lost their life in the line of duty.
“All of us remember exactly the place we were on September 11. Following the attacks, Americans joined the military. They were our sons, daughters, husbands, wives, neighbors, and coworkers. We all knew someone,” said Secretary of State, Alex Padilla.
“But most importantly, most of us know someone who paid the ultimate sacrifice. They shouldn’t be forgotten.”
Padilla explained how the Secretary of State’s office has chosen to honor those who have bravely fought for the country in the state through the ‘Honor Veterans. Vote.’ program which provides California citizens the opportunity to pay tribute and dedicate their vote to a veteran or active duty service member.
By submitting the dedication, a citizen receives a certificate or a lapel pin to proudly display appreciation for the honored veteran or active duty service member. There is also an option to have an email notification sent to the veteran or service member that is being honored, to notify them of the tribute.
“There is no better way to participate in our democracy than through exercising our right to vote and there is no better pledge one can make than that to honor those who are, or have served our country,” said Padilla.
California State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara believes the exhibit is one of the few, and best opportunities to honor the human beings who have given their life serving in the different branches of the U.S. military.
“It’s is our chance to see them not as numbers, but as human beings,” said Jackson.
The stories of many California’s fallen service members is one Assembly member Devon Mathis, R-Visalia can too closely relate to.
“Almost eight years ago, I was hit by a roadside bomb. I am a survivor. I don’t see those who have served as just my friends and neighbors, but as my battle buddies. To me, this traveling memorial represents those who were with me, who stood beside me— many of them who were fortunate to make it through, and others who did not,” said Mathis.
To date, California has lost over 700 military personnel since 2001— more than nay other state in the nation— of whom 33 were residents of the greater Sacramento area, ranking the region third in California cities with the most casualties. This tribute is one of 18 total tributes to fallen military personnel that have been displayed in states across the nation since the project began in 2010.
Let us not forget the diversity being reflected in those who have served our great nation.
Senate President pro Tempore Kevin De León
“Remembering Our Fallen from California” will be free of admission while on display at the California Museum.
As for Vasquez, the memory of her son, continues to live on.
“I want him to be remembered as a selfless human being who saved a countless number of lives during the short period that he served.