Echoes of courage: Fallen soldier had SLO ties

Spc. Benjamin Pleitez, right, is pinned as a specialist during a ceremony at Camp Roberts in 2011. Pleitez served in Afghanistan as combat medic for the California National Guard.
Spc. Benjamin Pleitez, right, is pinned as a specialist during a ceremony at Camp Roberts in 2011. Pleitez served in Afghanistan as combat medic for the California National Guard. Courtesy photo

The death last week of an Army soldier deployed from Camp San Luis Obispo to Afghanistan has left his friends and family heartbroken and with few answers about how he died.

Spc. Benjamin Pleitez, 25, of Turlock, died in the northeastern Afghanistan city of Mazar-e-Sharif on July 27. The combat medic’s death is being investigated by the U.S. Department of Defense. Details on the events surrounding the incident won’t be available for a few weeks, National Guard officials said Thursday.

In December, Pleitez volunteered to transfer to the 649th Military Police Company at Camp San Luis Obispo because the unit needed more medics before traveling overseas.

It was his first deployment, officials said.

“He was always happy — a good medic, and a lot of people looked up to him for that,” said Sgt. Christina Cooper, a Camp San Luis Obispo noncommissioned officer in human resources who introduced Pleitez to the unit.

A member of the Army National Guard since 2006, Pleitez was assigned to 1072nd Transportation Company in Fresno before he transferred to Camp San Luis Obispo.

He was only at Camp San Luis Obispo a short time before being deployed in March.

“He truly cared for his soldiers. Not just in a medic sense, but socially as well,” Cooper said.

As a medic in Afghan-istan, he was part of a unit that trucked equipment, personnel and supplies to and from combat outposts.

“During these missions, they’re under the constant threat of roadside bombs and attacks,” said Lt. Jan Bender, a California National Guard spokesman. “And in those instances, they need to have medical personnel on board.”

Pleitez also trained at Camp Roberts near San Miguel. In 2011, he was promoted to specialist during a training operation there.

Pleitez’s father, Salvador Pleitez, flew to the East Coast on Sunday night; his son’s body arrived Monday.

“The first impression we had was like somebody had taken our heart out,” Salvador Pleitez said. “But we are starting to get our head around it.”

Benjamin Pleitez was born in Paradise, then moved with his family to the Turlock area in 1999. He also leaves behind his mother, Diana, and two brothers, Jon, 28, and Evan, 21.

Salvador Pleitez said an autopsy will be performed on his son’s body, and then it will be returned to the San Joaquin Valley, where the family will have a service next week. His body is slated to return to Modesto on Tuesday.

While those close to the fallen soldier have hardly any details about how he was killed, one friend said recollections of time spent together are helping him cope.

“One good thing is he left us with great, great memories,” said Sgt. Carlos Soto, 23. “He was always happy. Doesn’t matter if it was 110 degrees outside and he was in a uniform — if you were his friend and he knew you, he was going to make sure you had a good day.”

The pair met in 2010 while working in Merced County for the Veterans Honors Program, a volunteer group of California National Guard soldiers who perform funeral ceremonies for all veterans.

The program was a perfect fit for him, Soto said.

“For him being in uniform and being a soldier — it meant a lot. He was very proud of that. And he really liked the idea of being there for the families. It meant a lot to him,” he added.

Waiting for news on how he died has been rough, Soto said.

“It’s devastating finding out because there’s no end result,” he said. “But what we do know is that he will be remembered not only for who he was but for the things that he did and how great of a friend he was.”

The Modesto Bee contributed to this report.