KERRVILLE, Texas — The 1,000th American serviceman killed in Afghanistan had already fallen once to a hidden explosive, driving his Humvee over a bomb in Iraq in 2007. The blast punched the dashboard radio into his face and broke his leg in two places.
Marine Cpl. Jacob C. Leicht didn't survive his second encounter with a bomb this week. The death of the 24-year-old Texan born on the Fourth of July marks a grim milestone in the Afghanistan war.
Leicht, who spent two painful years recovering from the Iraq blast, was killed Thursday when he stepped on a land mine in Helmand province that ripped off his right arm. He had written letters from his hospital bed begging to be put back on the front lines, and died less than a month into that desperately sought second tour.
An Associated Press tally shows Leicht is the 1,000th U.S. serviceman killed in the Afghan conflict. The first death — nearly nine years ago — was also a soldier from the San Antonio area.
"He said he always wanted to die for his country and be remembered," said Jesse Leicht, his younger brother. "He didn't want to die having a heart attack or just being an old man. He wanted to die for something."
The AP bases its tally on Defense Department reports of deaths suffered as a direct result of the Afghan conflict, including personnel assigned to units in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Uzbekistan.
Other news organizations count deaths suffered by service members assigned elsewhere as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, which includes operations in the Philippines, the Horn of Africa and at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Leicht's brothers told the AP that the military also told the family that his death put the toll at 1,000.
When military officers went to tell Leicht's parents that their adopted son had died in combat, sheriff's deputies had to help navigate them to the 130-acre family ranch tucked impossibly deep in the Texas Hill Country.
Big guy, soft heart
It was here that Jacob Leicht chopped thick cedar trees and hiked the rugged limestone peaks, growing up into an imposing 6-5, 200-pound Marine with a soft heart. He watched "Dora the Explorer" with his brother's children and confided to family that he was troubled by the thought of young civilians being killed in battle.
But for Leicht, born in a Lemoore, Calif., Navy hospital, the battlefield was the destination. He threw away a college ROTC scholarship after just one semester because he feared it would lead away from the front lines.
"His greatest fear was that they would tell him he would have to sit at a desk for the rest of his life," said Jonathan Leicht, his older brother.
When Jacob Leicht's wish finally came true, it didn't last long.
His first deployment was to Iraq in 2007, but he was there just three weeks when Jesse Leicht said his brother drove over two 500-pound bombs hidden beneath the road.
One detonated, the other didn't. The blast tore through the Humvee, shooting the radio into Leicht's face and knocking him unconscious. He felt something pinch his thumb, and the gunner's face was filleted so badly by shrapnel that medics couldn't keep water in his mouth.
None of the five people were inside the vehicle died. Jesse Leicht said an Iraqi interpreter, the only one on board who wasn't seriously injured, dragged his brother from the mangled vehicle. The blast snapped Jacob Leicht's fibula and tibula, and the recovery was an agonizing ordeal of pins and rods and bolts drilled into his bones.
But all Jacob Leicht could think about was going back. He launched a campaign for himself at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, writing letters and making phone calls about returning to combat. More than two years later, he was finally healthy enough to serve again.
Nine days before his brother stepped on a bomb in Afghanistan, Jesse Leicht enlisted in the Marines. Using Facebook to reach a friend stationed at a base not far from his brother, Jesse asked the soldier a favor: If you see Jacob, let him know I signed up like him.
"Hopefully," Jesse Leicht said, "he got the word."
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