Army Spc. Vilmar Galarza-Hernandez didn’t know how to frown.
When bad news came his way, Galarza, 21, rolled with the punches. He never complained.
It was his can-do spirit that the soldiers who knew him fondly recalled Wednesday during his memorial service at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Married two weeks before his second combat deployment, Galarza, of Salinas, Calif., died in the blast of an improvised bomb on May 26 in southern Afghanistan.
He arrived at the base in January 2010 and was eventually assigned to the 2nd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, one of two Lewis-McChord Stryker brigades now serving in Afghanistan. He is one of 14 Lewis-McChord soldiers killed there this year.
Tasked to drive a Stryker vehicle in Afghanistan, Galarza told Spc. Joshua Comstock, “Is this for real?” Galarza, an infantryman, wanted to be with his comrades on the ground, not tucked away alone in the driver’s compartment of an armored vehicle. He took the news in stride, though.
Word came down later that his unit would keep the vehicles parked most of the time.
“It was like Christmas came early for (him) and we could all see it in his face,” wrote Comstock, in his remarks read at the memorial service.
And then it appeared, what Comstock described as Galarza’s “million-dollar smile.”
It was the same look Spc. Jeffrey Livingston saw on Galarza’s face after a barber buzzed his long hair following their arrival for training in 2009 shortly after joining the Army.
“His face showed a man who was proud and determined,” Livingston said.
During their time together, Livingston said the smile always made his day better and lifted his spirit during trying times.
Lt. Col. Greg Harkins, commander of 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, described Galarza as a soldier who is “easy to recognize and hard to forget.”
“You didn’t have to talk with him long to know he was a cool customer,” Harkins wrote, in remarks read at the memorial service. “He was one of those soldiers who always knew what he was doing.”
Galarza is survived by his wife, Margarita Contreras, his mother, Gregoria, and his father, Pedro. They and other family members stood for a long moment in front of his portrait at the end of Wednesday’s service, hugging, crying and consoling each other.
Even the prospect of death wasn’t enough to rob Galarza of the positive attitude that carried him through his short life.
“Even up to the last breath, those pearly whites were there to remind us that everything is going to be OK,” Comstock wrote.christian.hill@ thenewstribune.com 253-274-7390 @TNTchill