Remembering SPC Holly J. McGeogh

Rosemary’s Thoughts led me to They Have Names, where I found the this very personal tribute to SPC Holly McGeogh from her family and friends.

This Week’s Hero

Holly J. McGeogh Name: Holly J. McGeogh
Rank: SPC
Service: Army
State: Michigan
Killed on: 31 January 2004

“When Holly arrived in Iraq in the beginning of April we didn’t get our first phone call from her until the end of May. I remember asking her if she was afraid and she told me ‘NO.’ I told her that she had a lot more balls than me because I would be lying in the middle of the desert crying, ‘I want my Mom.’ We laughed so hard on the phone. That was the first time that I told Holly that she was ‘My Brave Little Soldier.’ Since that day in Iraq she has been known to many as my brave little soldier.” Paula Zasadny (Holly’s Mother)

Holly J. McGeogh was born on August 29, 1984 in Dearborn, Michigan. As a baby, her mother Paula nicknamed her “Willy,” a special name they would continue to use even when Holly was in Iraq. She was quick, fearless, and got into everything when she was a little girl. One day around the age of 2 1/2 or 3, she decided that one of the family’s Chinese fighting fish might make a tasty treat. In the minute or two that Paula turned to fold clothes in the living room, she managed to catch the fish from a 10-gallon tank and give it a quick taste test-she bit it in half and ate the back part. She then ran to her mother and, rubbing her tummy, let out a huge, “Mmmmmm.” Paula couldn’t believe it and called Poison Control (she joked that this was something she had to do often with Holly, and she knew the number by heart and even a few of the names of people working there). It turned out that the fins could be poisonous and after some ipecac syrup, Holly was ok.

Throughout her childhood, Holly continued to show a remarkable sense of courage and toughness. Her stepfather, Michael, who she called “Daddy,” recalled a hunting trip they took in South Branch, Michigan when Holly was around 13 years old.

Michael: “We got to the cabin late Friday night and by the time we got the fuel burner running and the cabin warm it was time for bed. On Saturday morning I woke Holly at 5:30 AM to get ready for the hunt. There was probably about 8” of snow on the ground. We dressed pretty warm and headed for the woods.

I told Holly that there are two ways to hunt squirrels, finding a good spot and waiting for the squirrels to come to you, or walking all day looking for squirrel areas. I like to walk so that is how we proceeded. I told her what to watch for and what to listen for. The whole morning she was watching me and learning. We were probably in the woods about 20 minutes when I shot my first squirrel. Holly thought that was pretty cool, she never even saw the squirrel. So I explained to her what I heard and what I was looking for and I told her that squirrels like acorns and big trees and that you had to look at a spot and say if I were a squirrel this is where I would want to live.

I probably shot two more that she never even saw until after I shot. I just kept re-explaining what I heard and saw. She saw one and it was running and she wasn’t moving very fast with the gun or even at all so I killed it. I told her when she sees a squirrel that close she has to aim and fire as quickly as possible because they are not going to stick around to see if you are going to kill them.

Later in the morning the squirrels weren’t moving very much so we were just walking through the woods talking and I saw one quite a ways away in the crook of an oak tree, Holly couldn’t see it and I was trying to point it out to her but she still could not locate it and after awhile I wondered if it was even a squirrel myself, or maybe I was seeing things. So I took a shot at it, guess what? It was a squirrel. Holly said, ‘this isn’t as easy as I thought it was going to be.’

We went and got some lunch then headed back out into the woods but in a different area where I knew there would be some big squirrels. We ended up walking there for about two hours and saw nothing. We were getting ready to go to a different spot. I was about 20 yards from Holly when I saw the biggest fox squirrel of my life. Holly was too far behind me and it was moving through some white pines so I shot that one. We probably walked for about another hour, no squirrels. On our way out of the woods a black squirrel ran right in front of us and ran up a bank on a down tree and Holly raised her gun and shot it without even thinking. She said, ‘Daddy, did I get it?’ I told her hell yeah you got it. So we went over to the down tree and the squirrel was just on the other side of it dead. Holly was pretty excited and cold but she did all that without thinking, just hunting……

When we returned to the cabin it was time to clean the squirrels and I thought Holly would have a problem with that. I was wrong. After showing her how to clean one squirrel she had it down-some questions while doing it but no problems doing it. She cleaned her own and two of mine. I was proud of her because I know a lot of men who couldn’t clean an animal the first time without any problem.

It was a fun weekend and it was nice being able to teach Holly something. It was amazing how willing she was to go out in the cold, walk all day, and end it pulling guts out of an animal. She was about 13 years old at this time. The quality time with her was great. This is a weekend that I will never forget and cherish. Every time I am out in the woods squirrel hunting I think about her and sometimes I hunt the same spots for her.”

With her endless courage, the military seemed like a place Holly was destined to be. Upon entering Truman high school in Taylor, she joined Junior ROTC (JROTC) and was in it every year until her graduation. It seemed that JROTC was her passion and she excelled in these classes, doing much better than in her regular studies. She looked up to her mentors, SGT Maj Brown, MAJ Ingham, & MSG Myers, and admired them greatly. When she graduated, she was the Company A commander.

Holly first openly expressed an interest in the military in tenth grade, but her mother responded, “oh hell no. Absolutely not!” She persisted throughout high school and after 9/11, was pushing her mother hard to join the Army. Paula finally agreed when Holly suggested, “Mom, you have always told us that you didn’t care what we did as long as we did something, enjoyed doing it and we gave it our all.” She knew Holly was right, so she signed the parental consent form for early enlistment and Holly joined at 17 years old.

But joining the Army was not as easy as she would have hoped. Holly had poor vision in her right eye and it took several opinions from different Ophthalmologists before she was given the ‘ok’ to enlist after she graduated from high school. And then came the long wait from the Army. Holly was nervous and upset about the possibility of not being able to join, but she was finally approved.

Before Holly left for basic training, she and her mother made plans for a weekend together. They went to Great Lakes Crossing, a large mall in Michigan about an hour away from Taylor. Paula recalls, “We headed to the mall on Friday after work, we were able to get a Hotel room about 1/2 mile from the mall. We went to dinner on Friday night and shopped until the stores closed. We got up Saturday morning, got some breakfast and headed back to the mall, where we spent the day. We ate dinner in the Rain Forest Café, which was really cool. I think we headed home Sunday morning. This is a VERY cool weekend. We talked a lot about the Army, her boyfriend, and a lot of just girl talk. It was GREAT !!!!! We had a great time together.” Holly left for basic training at Fort Jackson on August 22, 2002, and according to many people, was one of the few soldiers who found basic training fun. Holly was a model soldier in basic training, mentoring and encouraging other soldiers. Upon graduation, her Drill SGT told Paula that Holly was one hell of a soldier and if it weren’t for her, their company would not have graduated. Apparently, she was teaching the others how to get their lockers in order to pass inspection. Paula laughed and told the Drill SGT that he must not be talking about her Holly because he had never seen her room at home.

Holly stayed at Fort Jackson for Advanced Individual Training (AIT) as a light wheeled mechanic and was made assistant class leader. On January 31, 2003 Holly was assigned to the 4th Infantry division, A Company, 4th forward support Battalion at Ft. Hood, Texas. This was to be Holly’s first permanent duty station. Michael said that when Holly first went into the service she told him that her goal was to help other people. During one of their last phone conversations, Michael told her that she had already met her goal. She didn’t understand what he meant and he told her that she had already helped millions of people. She said, “you know Daddy, you are right, I have.” He told her that she would have to come up with a new goal. She was excited about meeting her goal and told him that she still wanted to get out of the Army in 2005 and get an associates degree and go back to Officers school to either be in intelligence or psychology.

Holly received her deployment orders during the first week she was at Ft. Hood. They were to deploy by mid February. During the first week in February, Paula, Michael, and Holly’s grandfather visited her before deployment. This would be the last time they would see her. Holly was deployed on April 2, 2003 to Tikrit, Iraq at one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces. It would be about five or six months until they were able to establish proper restroom and shower facilities, but Holly never complained and even joked about it. She told her mom, “It’s no big deal, Mom. We all smell the same.” Her only complaint was that too many of the older, male soldiers were looking out for her and that she had too many fathers in Iraq. This was because Holly was always getting in trouble, trying to sneak in vehicles on raids and missions. She volunteered for everything and never wanted to be left out, even if it meant risking her own life.

Six months after being in Iraq, Paula heard on the news that a female soldier was killed in Tikrit from the 4th ID, outside of the palace gates by an IED. She did not know if this was Holly, and also knew that there were not a lot of female soldiers in her unit. She spent three days in fear. But on a Friday, she received a call at work from Holly. Paula ran outside so that she could hear and immediately started crying because Holly was alright. She could not help herself and cried on the phone. Holly became very stern and said, “Mom, stop it. If I die, you have to remember that I died doing something that I truly believe in, I died doing exactly what I want to do.” And that was the end of Paula’s tears. But then Holly began crying a little-the only time that her mom heard her cry while she was in Iraq. The day she called was the day that they had the memorial service for the young woman who was killed, her name was PFC Analaura Esparza Gutierrez. She was Holly’s battle buddy (room mate). Holly tried to call or e-mail as much as she could, and her mom will always remember a special phone call in November.

Paula: “Holly called in the middle of the night. All phone calls that we received from her were between 2 and 6 AM. She called about 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning and we were talking about her brother, Rob, and I was telling her a funny story. Holly had a really nice car stereo that she had gotten before she went into the service. Of course, she had the big speakers and amps in the trunk of her car-you know, the ones that shake the windows as they drive by. Anyway, Rob had taken her stereo and put it in his car. I did not know this, however, Michael must have caught him doing this or seen the stereo in Rob’s car and he started yelling at Rob to get it out of his car and put it back because he had not asked Holly if it was okay to take it and use it. He also told Rob that you don’t take things that do not belong to you unless you ask first. So Rob took the stereo out of his car and put it back. This was what I was telling Holly on the phone in the middle of the night. Holly tells me to take $200 out of her bank account and get Rob a stereo for his car and that would be the Christmas present to Rob from her. I told her that she needed to tell Rob that herself, so I woke him up and gave him the phone. Of course, I only heard his side of the conversation but this is what I heard. ‘Are you for real, Swweeeeet, that is awesome.’ They talked for a few more minutes because Rob had asked her what it was like in Iraq. Then I heard the words that made me cry. ‘I love you.’ There was 3 years between Holly and Rob and they fought ALL of the time. I believe this was the first and only time that I heard my two kids say I love you to each other. I tried so hard to stop crying before I got back on the phone with Holly. We didn’t usually have very long on the phone when she was able to call and I’m sure she did not want her to hear me cry. Rob still has that car stereo and I think it really means a lot to him. We are a very close family and I love you is used ALL of the time. This was how I raised my kids and it was always said before bed, at the end of phone conversations, and sometimes for no reason at all. Neither of my kids were/are afraid to say I love you even in front of their friends, but I had never heard the two of them say I love you to each other.”

The caring and loving side of Holly extended to all those she would meet, especially the Iraqi women and children. She would constantly ask for candy to give to the kids and one afternoon taught a group of Iraqi children how to play duck, duck goose. When a group of soldiers had been asked to secure a building, Holly and a Sergeant were asked to keep the 15 or so kids inside while they searched the rest of the building. Holly and the Sergeant had all of the kids who did not speak a word of English so the communication was difficult, but Holly and the Sergeant taught the kids how to play duck, duck goose. When she told her mom this story on the phone she was so excited you could hear it in her voice. She said the kids were smiling and laughing, and she said that she had so much fun with them that afternoon. The kids began calling the game, duck, duck ali babba. When they were done playing, the kids came up to her and reached for her sunglasses and Kevlar, so she let the kids take turns wearing her stuff. It made her feel so good to bring smiles and joy to these young kids even if for only a short while.

On January 31, 2004, Holly volunteered for a 60-mile trip to Kirkuk to pick up parts. Her truck was the last vehicle in a five-vehicle convoy. An IED was planted in the middle of the road and exploded as Holly’s vehicle went over it. She was killed in the attack along with CPL Juan C. Cabralbanuelos, 25, of Emporia, Kansas, and SGT Eliu Miersandoval, 27, of San Clemente, California.

Paula recounts how she heard the news, “It was the lightest tap on my door that I have ever heard in my life. I opened the door and I saw the man in the dress greens and I knew. I immediately knew. But I thought that if as long as I didn’t let him in, he couldn’t tell me. And then none of that would have happened. So he kept saying, ‘Ma’am I need to come in.’ And I kept telling him, ‘I’m sorry, but you can’t come in.’

And then I finally looked at him and stared crying and I said, ‘she’s wounded isn’t she? She’s wounded.’ And he said, ‘Ma’am, I have to come in.’

He told us that the Humvee that she was driving rolled over an IED and they detonated it with a garage door opener. And I remember all I cared about at that time-those first few days-was that at least she was going to come home.

At least I was going to get to see her, I hadn’t seen her in a year. I couldn’t wait to twirl her hair in my fingers. Then the Army told me it was impossible, that I couldn’t see her. The casket had to be closed. So I never got to even say good-bye to her, I had to say good-bye to a casket.”

The funeral Mass for Holly took place at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Wyandotte, Michigan with Bishop John Quinn, the Rev. T.J. Moloney of St. Joseph and the Rev. Festus Ejimadu of St. Aloysius Catholic Church in Romulus-where McGeogh was baptized-officiating. She is buried at Our Lady of Hope Cemetery in Brownstown Township.

Holly was to be promoted to Specialist on February 1, 2004, the day after she was killed. She was posthumously promoted, and her mother was presented with the Purple Heart and Bronze Star. Michigan Governor Jennifer M. Granholm ordered that United States flags throughout the state of Michigan and on Michigan waters be lowered on Thursday February 5, 2004, in honor of Holly. Two week after she was killed the Zasadny’s received cards from Holly. The couple was later interviewed for the HBO documentary, Last Letters Home, where they read the following letters.

Holly’s Card to Michael: Dad, Hi Daddy! How’s it going? I’m doing good. I want you to know that I couldn’t ask for a better father. I don’t think it’s possible. I want to say thank you for everything that you have done. You mean the world to all of us. I know things have been hard for all you guys and I’m sorry for that. But this is my job and what I live for. I know that you understand that. When I get home I would like to go up north, just me and you. Like before when I left to go. We can go hunting or canoeing, depending on the weather. Well, just remember-you are best dad in the world. Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Love always, Holly.

Holly’s Card to Paula: Mom, Hey Momma. I just want to say that I hope you do have a good Christmas and a Happy New Year. I know it won’t be the same. It is gonna be different for me-my first Christmas ever by myself. I gotta be strong and so do you, so please put on the Santa hat and have some fun. If you decide to get drunk, drink some Captain Morgan’s spiced rum and doctor pepper for me, ok? Remember, when I get back we are going to go shopping and get pampered. A whole week together and you are not gonna need those pills anymore, so we can throw them out, ok? But anyways I love you with all my heart and I couldn’t ask for a better mom because I’ve got the best one in the world already. Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. I love you with all my heart, Willy.

Paula and Michael are the embodiment of good-natured people, and it is easy to see where Holly got her strength, courage, and sense of love towards others. After the interview with the HBO crew, the Zasadnys cooked them all dinner.

Since Holly’s death many friends and family have reflected on what a special young woman she was. The following quotes are taken from blogs and Internet sites where people have left messages for Holly.

“Holly, I really do not know what words could express my empathy for your family and friends. You were dedicated to the service even in high school. Those are memories I myself will not forget. You are a true and honorable person. Brave, courageous, and dedicated. God Bless You and all those like you.” Jennifer O’Shay of Taylor, MI USA

“Holly I still remember the first day I met you in 9th grade in homeroom, I was new to Truman and you were just so nice to me. I remember all the times when our lockers were next to each other when I was upset about something you always made me laugh I miss that and I miss you, you were so brave and I will never forget you. To a very brave soldier you are missed” Tiffany of new boston/taylor

“God bless you Holly! I just heard of the ultimate sacrifice you made for our country. I remember you since Ft. Jackson with that funny looking smile. Class 05 B Delta Dogs LEAD THE WAY! God Bless the ones you left behind. You will never be forgotten Girl.” SGT. Luis Avendano 1-143 Field Artillery 40th ID of Sacramento CA

“Dear Private First Class McGeogh, First of all, I want to thank you for the sacrifices you have made for your country, family, friends and unit. I want to tell you that your death was not in vain. Because of you, the 4th SB and the 4th ID have implemented a completely new type of training to deal with the threat of IEDs. I am currently assigned to Aco. 4th Support Battalion as you were. As we get nearer to our redeployment to Iraq, we go there with more training and knowledge on all subjects. For that, I especially want to thank you. I have one of the most dangerous jobs in the unit. I am the Battalion’s 6 Delta. I am glad that I had the opportunity to receive the training, that if it weren’t for you, would never have happened. Please know that most of your NCOs are still here and mention you often. You will forever be remembered here at the Packhorse. “PACKHORSE SUPPORT”” PFC Barbuch PH6D of Aco.4SB, 4ID Ft.Hood, TX

“Hey Holly I miss you so much, it has been 1 year 3 months and 2 days since you died. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about you. I still get very angry that you left me even though it isn’t your fault. I just wanted to have Army stories with you. Hell I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you. I still wonder how I am going to make it without you. I still cry, not as much, but I do. You were my best friend and I was yours. No one has ever cared for me as much as you did. I just miss talking to you so much. I miss all our crazy adventures we used to go on trying to find Frank and Shane and all the guts you use to have that I didn’t. I miss the fact that you were never scared to make Frank mad, and how you use to think I was dumb for caring what Shane thought. I miss you so much, you made me a strong person. I thank you so much for all you have given me. I wish you were here. I will see you soon. I remember all the days we skipped school to do nothing we really didn’t even have a reason to skip we just did. I miss you and love you so much Holly, no one here knows how much!” Helena (Hollys Best Friend) of Babenhausen, Germany and Taylor, MI

“To the Zasadny/McGeogh Family, I was the second senior ranking person on the convoy that took your daughter’s life. Since that fateful day in January, not a single day has gone by that I do not think of SPC McGeogh, SGT Cabral, and SGT Sandoval and I always second guess if there was anything we could have done to prevent what happened. When I picked up the pictures that Holly always carried with her I could not help but be overcome with emotion on how proud a family Holly belonged. From the pictures I could tell that you not only supported your daughter but you supported what she was doing, and that is rare in these ages, I commend you for you patriotage. I thank you for raising such a brave and dedicated young woman. Since the day I met her, 4 weeks before the convoy, you could tell that she prided herself on accomplishing her mission and helping her fellow soldiers. Ma’am words cannot begin to express the sorrow I feel for you and your family; I am proud to have served with your daughter. Sincerely,” John Lopez of Killeen, TX

“Holly, You were the greatest girl I’ve ever met. You always pushed me to do my best in JROTC. If not for you I don’t think that I would have come as far as I have. I mean, you gave me my first push ups. I miss you so much, thank you for every thing that you have done. You’re one of the bravest people I know. Your family will always be in my prayers. And to Paula and Mike, you guys did an awesome job raising your daughter, God bless you” Nikki Campbell of Taylor, MI

“To the family of Holly McGeogh: I was in Tikrit with your daughter. I remember taking her on a mission with us. It was so hot and I was in my vehicle, miserable with all the flies and sand around me- but I could hear Holly’s laughter in the very next vehicle enjoying just talking with one of our soldiers. It was infectious. She was such a happy girl and will be missed. God bless you all.” SGT LeAndra Pedersen of Woodland Hills, CA

“Holly and I grew up together. She was a great person always happy and joking around. She was so fun to be around. I am so proud of everything that she has done. She is one of the bravest people I know. We are lucky to have people like her serving our country. Holly is and will forever be my hero. Holly I love you and will forever miss you.” Miranda of Novi, MI

“Dear Holly J McGeogh I don’t know where to begin. I remember you walking though the halls of Truman High School and in class with me as if it were yesterday. Then we both joined the United States Army, you as a mech. and me as a Military Police Officer, which takes a lot to do. Especially to go to war and defend the world from terrorism. Plus I can remember the last time I saw you at the chow hall in Tikrit Iraq. Seeing you smiling and joking with me about our time at Truman High School and how our lives were going in the Army. I will never forget you as a brave soldier and as a friend in school. Rest in Peace and God Bless your family through this hard time. Peace, Love, and Respect Your friend and Fellow Soldier PFC Anthony L. Boike Truman c/o 2002” PFC Anthony L. Boike of Taylor MI, depolyed in Tikrit Iraq

From Holly’s boyfriend, SPC Sergio Cardenas, in an e-mail to Paula: Paula, Hey it’s me Sergio, just got off the phone with you and your husband. I’m sorry sorry that this happen and I wish that I would turn back the hands of time to keep Holly here with us. I miss her so much that it hurts every time that I think about her. She was a very close friend and I loved her a lot and miss her even more. She was one of those girls that came into your life and changed it for you. I just wanted to thank you for having a great daughter and blessing me to meet her. She had plans that she wanted to do and she always told the one thing that she wanted to do was get out of the Army and go to school and have a great time being in school, and coming back to the army as an officer so she can change a lot of things that she didn’t like. I’m so sorry that this happened to a great and beautiful girl like her. If I could, I would give myself to the LORD so she could come back. Paula, she said that you were the best parents the she had and always talked about you and your husband. I will never forget the beautiful smile that lit the room up and the laugh that she had that I love to hear. The way she would try to say my name in Spanish but couldn’t say it right because she could roll her R’s. I just want to thank you once again for bringing her in to this world and letting me meet her and have shared my heart with her. I thank you with all my heart. One more thing Paula, you have to be strong and know that she is with you every min. every hour, every day of your life and she will always be with us looking over us and keeping us safe. Your friend Sergio

In an e-mail, Paula said, I cannot even begin to tell you how much I miss Holly. I am left with having a huge emptiness in my heart and the excruciating pain of missing my baby. I know that there is nothing in life that will take the pain away or end the missing of her. That is the part that sucks. I am grateful that I had 19 GREAT years with my daughter and I also know that I was very fortunate to have her for 19 years; some parents lose their kids when they are very young. I would give anything to be able to get a hug from Holly or to hear the words “I love you Mom”. I am very proud of my daughter for her sacrifice to our great nation. I thank our troops for ALL their sacrifices and for watching over my family and me day and night, keeping us safe. I am very proud to be American. My daughter and all of our fallen are my HEROES !!!!!

The license plate on her truck is a military plate that reads, “W1LLY.”

In May 2007, the city of Taylor, Michigan presented the “Lest They Be Forgotten” Memorial in front of City Hall, dedicated to Holly. Paula has worked with the Lest They Be Forgotten organization, helping fund, and dedicate memorials to other fallen soldiers.

The following poem, Tribute to Courage, by James Elston, seems like a fitting way to honor Holly’s sacrifice, Tribute to Courage Courage is doing what is right Without having to be told Courage is manning up When you know you’ve done something wrong Courage is looking the enemy in the eye And telling them to just bring it Courage is having fear But still staying strong Courage is facing adversary But being able to overcome it Courage is leaving your family behind To defend the country you love Courage is being a soldier In the greatest Army in the world Thank you for this courage That lets us live free May God bless you And come home safely to your families

Holly did not come home, but her courage did. Rest in peace “brave little soldier,” you are a lasting example to inspire those who seek courage, sacrifice, and love.

LINKS TO SPC Holly J. McGeogh

Military City Profile

Fallen Heroes Memorial Page

The News Herald

1-22 Infantry Page

HBO “Last Letters Home” Series

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