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LCpl. David GramesSanchez

(reprinted from FtWayne.com, May 15, 2006)
For Elmhurst, tragedy is all too familiar

Matthew Mertes, an economics teacher at Elmhurst High School, said students and staff were just starting to recover from the December death of Jonathan Blair, a 2002 Elmhurst graduate and Army corporal killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq, when they were dealt another tragedy Friday morning.

That’s when Mertes got a phone call telling him Marine Lance Cpl. David GramesSanchez, a 2003 Elmhurst graduate, was dead. GramesSanchez, a father and husband just 22 years old, drowned along with three others when their tank careened upside down into a canal near Karmah, 50 miles west of Baghdad. The grief was felt again, and the strain that returned to the teachers’ faces was matched by the bewildered stares of the students.

“It’s just been different,” Mertes said. “It’s like a cloud cast over the school as a whole.”

The school memorial service planned next week for Blair will now include GramesSanchez – two men who didn’t know each other when alive but who will be forever joined in death in the minds of those at Elmhurst.

“We’ve lost men who were super-nice kids,” Mertes said. “They really wanted to make a difference.”

Before serving his country, GramesSanchez wanted to shape up physically and mentally, said David McKinnis, a physical education teacher at Elmhurst who helped prepare GramesSanchez for the military through his strength training class.

Push-ups, chin-ups and running drills comprised the young man’s regimen, and he loved it, McKinnis said. The work bulked up GramesSanchez’s approximate six-foot frame and increased his self-discipline. McKinnis called him “Arnold,” after the body-building actor and California governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

When GramesSanchez enlisted in the military, he and McKinnis kept in touch by letter and e-mail. As they grew closer, GramesSanchez eventually stopped calling McKinnis “coach” and used the first name both men share: David.

During one trip home, GramesSanchez visited Elmhurst and told McKinnis he planned to marry his high school sweetheart Lindsay Walsh, also an Elmhurst grad. The two wed in December.

The phys-ed teacher was hurt by Blair’s death, but suffered a body blow when he learned about GramesSanchez. What hurts the most, McKinnis said, was the young man’s life was cut short as he was maturing and planning a future for his family.

“You could see things coming together for him,” McKinnis said.

Elmhurst senior Phillip Sanders, who plans to join the Army National Guard after graduation, knew GramesSanchez in passing when the two would see each other in the halls.

Although optimistic about enlisting, Sanders admits he has been shaken by the deaths of Blair and GramesSanchez.

“It’s kinda scary,” said the 18-year-old. “I’ve gotta keep the mindset of living and not dying.”

Wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned in yellow with the word “soldier,” Sanders said family members are proud of his decision but concerned about what could happen to him. On the back of his shirt, “soldier” is defined as “the trooper, the warrior, respected in the street.”

Rather than worry about his mortality, Sanders focuses on coming home alive. And staff at Elmhurst hope the memorial for Blair and GramesSanchez will be the last one held there.

“The thing that I’ve heard among the kids is, a ‘Why is this happening to us?’ kind of feeling,” said Mertes. “You can’t provide an answer for that. It seemed like we were just starting to heal.”