MIAMI, FL, US U.S. Army SPC, CO C, 2D BN, 503D INF, CAMP EDERLE, ITALY 07/13/2008, FOB FENTY, AFGHANISTAN
Private First Class Sergio S. Abad planned to be married on August 24, 2008, at the South Miami Elks Club — an Oriental-themed affair certain to feature music by the 21-year-old soldier’s favorite singer: Frank Sinatra. Instead, he’ll be buried next week at Arlington National Cemetery, as an Army bugler plays taps.
Abad died July 13, 2008, in a firefight that killed nine soldiers at Wanat, a remote base in eastern Afghanistan. He was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (Airborne), 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. He had been scheduled to head home the next day.
Awaiting his return: His fiancée, Christina Parra, and a huge extended family — a family not bound by blood but by the love of a young man who had adopted them. Abad was a bright, funny, hyperactive 7-year-old when the Florida Department of Children & Families removed him from an abusive home and placed him with a relative. By middle school, he had been absorbed into two unrelated households: the Popkos of Coral Gables and the Pittses of Riviera Estates, each with children his age.
Through him, the families became what Marilyn Popko calls “a kinship group.” Abad called Marilyn Popko and Lori Pitts ”Mommy,” their husbands ”Dad,” and his high school ROTC mentor, CSM Oliver R. Hoggard, “Pops.” He’d stay awhile with one family, then with the other, though sometimes he would withdraw and camp out in Tropical Park. ”He was one of the kids,” said Lori Pitts, whose daughter, Krystine Pitts Flagg, befriended Abad at Homestead Middle School.
Pitts’ husband, Coral Gables police Lieutenant Paul Pitts, “would throw him $20 to go to the movies. He had chores around the house. He had to help out with laundry and feed the dog.” Abad ”absorbed love like a sponge,” Pitts said. “He never wanted to disappoint us.”
Clinical psychologist Stephen Popko said he and Paul Pitts ”set down the rules firmly,” giving Abad the structure he craved. He attended South Miami High School with the class of 2003, then earned a GED at the Job Corps center in Morganfield, Kentucky.
The Army mistakenly listed Morganfield as his hometown in the news release announcing his death. Toward the end of high school, Abad moved in with Marilyn Popko’s sister’s family on a five-acre horse farm in the Redland — ideal for a youngster who loved animals and hard work.
Marybeth Klock-Perez, her sister, and husband Diego Perez, run Better Families Though Tae Kwan Do, a Bird Road martial-arts studio. Abad excelled at karate. He had a lot of energy and a knack for teaching children.
”He was really athletic and could knock out hundreds of push-ups with no problem,” Marybeth said. “He always had something positive or funny or naughty to contribute.”
For a youngster who had ”been dealt really unfair cards in life, he was absolutely never bitter,” Klock-Perez said. “He never used excuses or acted like the world owed him.” At school, Abad developed a passion for acting, directing and Junior ROTC, where he found another father figure: Hoggard, who ran the program. Retired from the Army, Hoggard is now working for a defense contractor in Iraq.
Colonel Eddie Santana took over the ROTC program shortly before Abad left but remembers him as “an outstanding young leader — very disciplined and committed. He always knew what he wanted to do: join the Army.”
A 2003 Miami Herald story described Abad climbing a 45-foot fire tower during a summer ROTC boot camp:
“Abad practically flew up the 50 steps to get to the top of the tower. . . . About 10 seconds later, Sergio was back on the ground. He took a swig of water and got in line for the next rappel.”
He told the reporter: “You gotta die some day, right? You cannot compare this experience to anything else in the world.”
After completing the Job Corps program, Abad entered basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia. He was then stationed in Vicenza, Italy, for a year.
”It was one of the best times he ever had,” Marilyn Popko said. ”He went to Germany, Switzerland, France. And he loved jumping out of airplanes. He came home after a year for a month, then went to the Agham Korengal Valley,” a Taliban stronghold in northeastern Afghanistan on the Pakistani border.
He was apprehensive about combat, Stephen Popko said. “He knew from the beginning that he might not come home, but this was his thing. It was high energy, and he was going to make it. . . . He was sent on classified missions.”
After a month’s leave in March, Abad deployed to Camp Blessing, an eastern Afghan base. By July 13, he and his comrades had gone to Wanat, a new forward-operating base in Kunar province that Stars & Stripes, the Army newspaper, says is the size of a football field. At 4:30 a.m., a rocket-propelled grenade landed in the base’s mortar pit, the opening salvo of a two-hour battle that proved the deadliest for U.S. troops in Afghanistan since 2005. Abad’s loved ones say he was hit in the femoral artery.
”This was not a haphazard attack,” Stars & Stripes opined. Some 200 insurgents “fought from several positions. They aimed to overrun the new base. The U.S. soldiers knew it and fought like hell.”
A wounded survivor told the newspaper: “It was some of the bravest stuff I’ve ever seen in my life, and I will never see it again because … normal humans wouldn’t do that. You’re not supposed to do that — getting up and firing back when everything around you is popping and whizzing and trees, branches coming down and sandbags exploding and RPGs coming in over your head — It was a fistfight then, and those guys held ’em off.”
Abad would have become a father in December. He died not knowing his child is a girl.
Fiancée Christina Parra plans to give her the name that Abad chose: Lorelai Rocio Abad — after Lori Pitts and Christina’s mother. He wanted a daughter, said Krystine Flagg.
“He wanted to give her the life he never had. A mother and father who stayed together.” Other survivors include ”siblings” Katheryn, Zachery and Leo Pitts, and Catherine Popko.