An American Marine dies in Afghanistan, and her community back home loses ‘a light’

A report by María Luisa Paúl for The Washington Post.

Amid the dozens of yellowing pages Jineyda Tapia kept from her time as a teacher at Lawrence High School was a heartfelt essay by Johanny Rosario.

When Rosario’s name appeared among the 13 U.S. service members killed last week in the terrorist attack at Kabul’s international airport, Tapia went back to her vault of memories — boxes and folders holding precious photos of her students, essays they wrote for their college applications and assignments from the English course she taught from 2006 to 2015.

Written when Rosario was still a senior, Tapia said, the document captures the essence of a girl who was “a light” in Lawrence, Mass. — a predominantly Hispanic community and one of the state’s poorest cities.

“The wrinkles on my lips when I smile represent all the people who have helped me through the tough part of my journey,” Rosario wrote in 2013. “These experiences have made me the strong, optimistic, independent young woman that I am today. It has made me the light within myself that I can now show to people and make their cloudy, gray skies brighter.”

Reading the essay out loud brings Tapia to tears. “That was Johanny, always wanting to care for others because …” After a long pause, she added, “esa niña era un sol,” in between sobs. That girl was a sun.

The death of the 25-year-old Marine sergeant underscores the youngest and latest American casualties of a war that had trudged on for nearly two decades — one that began when most of them were infants. The news of their deaths sent ripples across states, where a conflict taking place thousands of miles away suddenly hit close to home.

In Lawrence, the community is mourning — not just for a Marine who “helped over 30,000 people reach safety before she was killed by a suicide bomber,” as Gov. Charlie Baker (R) said at a Tuesday vigil, but for the young woman who “was other people’s cornerstone of strength,” Tapia said.

“I feel sometimes when we talk about the military, we forget that these people are individuals,” she added.

Back home, Rosario was admired for her work ethic, determination and leadership. As a student in Lawrence High’s math, science and technology school, she was involved in multiple extracurriculars, student government and Junior ROTC.

“She was always on top of her game in school,” said Elvis Lora, one of Rosario’s high school friends. The two met as freshmen through the institution’s Upward Bound Program — which aids first-generation and low-income students in their preparation for college entrance.

Lora and Rosario had remained friends ever since, traversing both joyful and challenging circumstances that brought them together, he said. The two shared more than their Dominican heritage, bonding over the dream of making their families and fellow citizens proud.

“This is a community that we’re always consistently trying to prove ourselves,” Lora said. “We pretty much grew up like brothers and sisters, and we related with each other in the sense that we wanted to make something out of ourselves.”

While Rosario was known for her academic achievements, Lora said her kindness and willingness to help others were the qualities that defined her.

“She radiated positivity in everything she did, like a ray of sunshine,” he said. “Anyone who was friends with Johanny is an extremely lucky person.”

That sentiment permeated into the accolades and tributes that started pouring over social media from friends and Marines who described Rosario as “a beautiful person inside and out” and as a “great mentor to her junior Marines.”

Rosario entered the Marine Corps in 2015 after completing a semester at Bridgewater State University. She served with the Naval Amphibious Force, Task Force 51/5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade. This August brought her second deployment to Afghanistan, where Rosario had volunteered with her unit’s female engagement team, said 1st Lt. Jack Coppola, a Marine Corps spokesman, and “was screening women and children at Abbey Gate when the attack took place.”

During her enlistment, Rosario was a supply chief — a task commonly held by higher-ranked service members — in which she supervised the purchasing of supplies, managed budgets and developed spending plans. Her performance earned her two medals and a commendation from her unit in May, according to a Facebook post by her task force.

“You may have seen her listed as Sergeant Johanny Rosario or Sergeant Johanny Rosario Pichardo, but I knew her as Sergeant Rosie, and I had the honor of serving as her Officer in Charge for 15 months before she headed to the Middle East,” Marine Capt. Austin Keeley wrote on Facebook.

Keeley, who serves as deputy director of the Recruiters School, Marine Corps Recruit Deport, in San Diego, said Rosario had a second part-time job as a caretaker for elderly patients with dementia and was also a student at Columbia College — finishing 83 of the required 120 credits while on active duty.

For Rosario and the dozen other slain service members, serving the country was a calling, Marine Capt. Jaleel A. Rogers said.

“We’re here because we believe in what we’re doing and the mission at the end of the day, and I don’t think that anybody else in any profession could say the same thing,” he said.

News of Rosario’s death traveled from Kabul to Lawrence to the Dominican Republic, where she has deep family roots. On Friday night, Sonia Guzmán, the Dominican Republic’s ambassador to the United States, tweeted in honor of Rosario. “We share in the pain of her family and friends, also the entire Dominican Community of Lawrence,” she captioned a photo of Rosario standing in front of an American flag. “Peace to your soul!”

“We are heartbroken by the death of the servicemen and women due to the bombing in Kabul this week,” Lawrence Mayor Kendrys Vasquez said in a statement.

Vasquez added that he had been in touch with Rosario’s family. Her relatives, the statement said, asked for privacy and requested that “their loved one be recognized as the hero that she was.”

Since the explosion on Aug. 26, two vigils have been hosted in her honor — one on Sunday by Massachusetts Fallen Heroes, an organization founded by veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and another in her hometown.

Yet, for those who knew Rosario, her bubbly personality, radiant smile and pride in her Dominican heritage lives in their shared memories. The lessons she imparted can never be erased, Lora said.

“She was always telling me that you can go through certain traumatic events, but as long as you keep your heart pure and you love those who show you love, that’s all that matters,” he said.

2 thoughts on “An American Marine dies in Afghanistan, and her community back home loses ‘a light’

  1. Reblogged this on It Is What It Is and commented:
    Johanny’s quote as a senior in high school … “The wrinkles on my lips when I smile represent all the people who have helped me through the tough part of my journey,” Rosario wrote in 2013. “These experiences have made me the strong, optimistic, independent young woman that I am today. It has made me the light within myself that I can now show to people and make their cloudy, gray skies brighter.”

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