Army Pfc. Casillas, 19, died July 4 while carrying a wounded soldier after a surprise attack on a combat outpost in the Paktika province in eastern Afghanistan. Casillas completed basic, advanced individual and airborne training at Fort Benning, Ga., and arrived for duty at Fort Richardson in November 2008. Casillas was based in Ft. Richardson, Alaska, and served with the 3rd Battalion, 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division.
Casillas grew up in the tiny town of Dunnigan in the farm country north of Sacramento. An active, sometimes mischievous child, he talked about wanting to join the military "as far back as I can remember, since he was 3 or 4," said his mother, Donna Casillas.
At Pierce High in nearby Arbuckle, Casillas was a well-liked "C" student who got in one or two fights and occasionally butted heads with authority figures, his friends and family said. But he always showed up, and did the academic and athletic work needed to play sports and keep his dream of military service alive.
When the farm's repair shop needed a new roof, "Justin jumped right up on the rafters and was doing it when nobody else wanted to get up there," Friel said. "If he liked you and you liked him, he would do anything for you."
Casillas overcame his father's objections to join the military, extending a family tradition dating back to the Civil War, his mother said.
After Casillas' March deployment to Afghanistan, "I knew they were in a dangerous place," she said. "He told me there had been three attempts to ambush their patrols." On Independence Day, his camp came under direct assault. Soldiers filmed part of the fighting, including footage of Casillas firing a mortar as part of a two-person team.
There's no film of what happened next, when shrapnel from enemy ordnance severed a leg artery of Casillas' gunmate, Pfc. Aaron E. Fairbairn, 20, of Aberdeen, Wash. Casillas, trained in first aid, knew that Fairbairn, a close friend from boot camp, needed immediate treatment.
"Pfc. Casillas, without hesitation, actually pushed his . . . platoon sergeant and mortar crew chief aside," said 1st Lt. Mike Bassi, in an interview filmed by troops.
Casillas "ran into incoming fire three different times: one to get a fire mission in order for us to return fire effectively on the enemy. The second time to retrieve Pfc. Fairbairn, who was injured in the mortar pit, and the third time to take him" for medical treatment, the lieutenant said.
But as Casillas carried his taller, wounded friend through enemy fire, a mortar round landed 5 feet away, killing them both.
In addition to his mother, Casillas is survived by his father, Charles Casillas, his stepfather, Joe Casillas, and younger sisters Victoria and Ashleigh.
AWARDS: Silver Star, Purple Heart
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