Her son loved the Army, Perry Hall mother says A SOLDIER'S DEATH

June 13, 1992|By Jay Merwin | Jay Merwin,Staff Writer

When Army Cpl. Zak A. Hernandez was sent to South Korea for a tour of duty and later to Saudi Arabia for the Persian Gulf war, he took a rosary he had fashioned from green twine and a plastic crucifix.

But when he volunteered to go to Panama in February, he left the rosary with his mother in Perry Hall, assuring her, "I speak Spanish," and that the Panamanians would regard him as one of them.

Corporal Hernandez, 22, died Wednesday as men with AK-47 assault rifles ambushed the military jeep he was driving 30 miles north of Panama City. Another soldier and a bystander were injured.

Demonstrations had started two days earlier to protest a visit by President Bush. On Thursday Mr. Bush was greeted with gunshots, tear gas and protesters. He had to be evacuated from a plaza in Panama City, where he had planned to give a speech praising the progress of democracy since the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989.

Corporal Hernandez had made many Panamanian friends, said his mother, Arlene Laporte. "He was sure he was going to be OK there," said Mrs. Laporte, 45, holding her son's homemade rosary. She wore a gold pendant with Zak written on it -- a gift to him for graduation from parochial school.

She lives in a town house amid a large residential development off Belair Road, where the family moved three years ago from Guayanilla, Puerto Rico.

Guayanilla was a quiet town of about 20,000. Mrs. Laporte had left it three years ago to care for her ailing mother, who was living with other family members in the Baltimore area.

Corporal Hernandez was already in the Army when his mother moved. He joined soon after his 18th birthday, fulfilling a yearning nurtured through a boyhood of reading books of war and famous generals. His father, a Vietnam veteran, had told him that in the Army "you really become a man."

His mother had wanted him to go to college, thinking the rigors and dangers of military life would be too much for him.

He was "a mama's boy," family members said, and a bit shy.

He assured his mother at the time that he wanted her approval before going into the Army. He even spent a semester at a Puerto Rican university to make her happy while waiting for her to relent. When his report card came, he handed it to his mother as if it didn't belong to him, and said, "Here are your grades."

Finally she took the advice of the priest at the parochial school her son had attended and agreed to let him follow his ambitions. "It was like a dream to him," she said. "He came to me and made many hugs."

As it turned out, he had already signed up. "I knew you were going to say yes," he explained.

Corporal Hernandez did tours of duty at Fort McClellan in Alabama, at Fort Hood in Texas and in South Korea, and seemed to thrive. "Nobody expected him to go that far," said his brother, Derek, 19, who works in a restaurant and lives with his mother, two younger brothers and stepfather.

When Corporal Hernandez visited on furloughs, he had given up his old habit of sleeping late and would roust his brothers early in the morning. "He wanted to be busy all the time because he thought he would miss something," Derek said. "He was a lot more mature."

Corporal Hernandez often tried to entice Derek to join him in the Army, and Derek was thinking about it. He went as far as to talk to a recruiter earlier this spring about the Army Reserves. But now, "I don't know, I'm confused," Derek said.

Before leaving for the Gulf War, Corporal Hernandez told his mother that he was finally getting the opportunity to put his training to use. His job was to monitor the presence of poison gas in the event of a chemical bomb attack.

After he came home safe from the war, his mother still feared for his safety, although he tried to tell her, "There's not a war every day," and that there probably wouldn't be another one during his career.

In phone calls home, he would say, "I love Panama, it's just like Puerto Rico," "It's a paradise," and, "I will never leave the Army."

Mrs. Laporte had a foreboding about her son when she saw the news on television Thursday morning about a soldier's being gunned down in Panama. He was as yet unidentified, pending notice of his next of kin. About 15 minutes later, she saw from her window that two Army officers were walking the sun-baked parking lot outside, eyeing the numbers above the doors.

She called to her husband in the next room that the officers must be looking for her, to bring bad news about her son. "You're crazy," he said.

Then the officers found her door.

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