HARKER HEIGHTS — Daughter, sister, friend, leader, encourager, competitor, singer and giver of hugs. Those are all descriptions of 2nd Lt. Emily Perez, but above all those descriptions, her greatest joy was the love and faith she had in God … and country.

Emily was the first African American cadet brigade command sergeant major of West Point. A feisty, 5-foot, 3-inch cadet, nicknamed Taz because her fellow cadets said she was like the Tasmanian Devil, she was both feared and revered for her leadership, conviction and heart. Although tough as nails in formation, she would spend her free time tutoring the cadets and writing letters of encouragement for those who felt like quitting West Point.

“In her diary, she wrote that people have taken care of her all her life and now she had the opportunity to take care of other people,” Vicki Perez said of her daughter. “Her biggest concern was taking care of her Soldiers.”

Emily’s perpetuity to help others led her to become a Medical Service Corps officer. The same heart that reassured Soldiers when they felt like giving up at West Point, was also the same heart who volunteered to go out on convoy Sept. 12, 2006, taking the place of an inexperienced leader while deployed with the 204th Support Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 4th Infantry Division in Iraq.

On that fateful day 14 years ago, Emily paid the ultimate sacrifice when an improvised explosive device exploded under her Humvee. It was a day Daniel, father, and Vicki will never forget – the day they became a Gold Star Family, an “honor” no parent wants – but many have to face.

Over the next few weeks, her family would learn that Emily was the first African American female officer to die in combat in Iraq, she was the first female graduate of West Point to die in the Iraq War and she was the first West Point graduate of the “Class of 9/11” to die in combat.

“My first question to the casualty assistance officer was ‘Was it instant?’ because the thought of her being hurt,” Vicki said, holding back tears. “I know the first thing she would think is, she would want me (to comfort her).”

It was only after Vicki heard an interview in 2019 with former Spc. Travis Truesdell, Emily’s former door gunner, that her question was finally answered. Hearing Truesdell’s account of Emily’s final moments – that her death was instant and she didn’t suffer – was something Vicki’s heart needed to hear after 13 years of not knowing.

“It was a terrible thing to happen, but to think your child was suffering for any amount of time is heart wrenching,” Vicki explained. “To hear that (she didn’t suffer) helped me a lot, even after all these years.”

Daniel and Vicki remember their daughter as an affectionate child who always inspired the best in everyone. She was a track star, member of the 1st European Chapter of the Jack and Jill program, Girl Scouts and a volunteer with the Red Cross. She was one of the youngest members ever to be accepted into Model United Nations and advocated to find a cure for HIV and AIDS. Although her words inspired the toughest of Soldiers, even as a teenager, Emily was a powerful speaker who inspired hope.

“You never went in Emily’s presence and left the same way,” Daniel said. “Her whole thing was making you better than what you were and making you want to do your best.”

Although Emily originally did not plan on joining the military or attending West Point, Vicki said after attending a summer program at the school, Emily made it her mission to be accepted. She enjoyed the competitiveness and camaraderie of the school and although she began her application later than other students, she was determined.

“After Emily was killed, I was very upset with God,” Vicki admitted. “We fought a lot – well, I fought him – he just listened.”

Vicki said she fought with God until he told her that although Emily is no longer physically on Earth, her spirit would continue to live on and she would continue to inspire people. True to his word, Emily’s story lives on throughout the world.

Following her death, the 4th Inf. Div. dedicated the Emily Perez Treatment Facility at Forward Operating Base Kalsu and named a street, Emily’s Way, in her memory. In Harriman, New York, a town near West Point, the American Legion Mulligan-Eden Post 1573 dedicated River Road as 2nd Lt. Emily J.T. Perez Memorial Way in 2011. Not long after, Daniel and Vicki were contacted by the Smithsonian Institution about having a permanent display honoring Emily.

Emily’s compelling story and personal military memorabilia is now on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., her spirit living on and continuing to inspire millions of visitors annually.

There are also several plaques and memorials throughout the world in honor of Emily, who would have never wanted so much fuss about her. Vicki said her wise, but humble daughter had faith far beyond her years, living by one simple rule that has continued to inspire Vicki: If you do your best, God will do the rest.

More than 14 years have passed since Emily “gained her wings,” but she continues to live on in the lives of her family, friends and Soldiers whose lives she touched in her brief, but inspirational life.

Sept. 27 is Gold Star Mother’s and Family Day, observed the last Sunday in September to honor and recognize those parents – like Daniel and Vicki – who have lost a child while serving in the military.