Marine who topped Afghan toll had pined for return to combat
KERRVILLE, Texas — The 1,000th American service member killed in Afghanistan was born on the Fourth of July. He died several days before Americans honor fallen troops on Memorial Day.
Marine Corporal Jacob C. Leicht was killed Thursday when he stepped on a land mine in Helmand province. It was the 24-year-old Texan’s second deployment overseas.
Leicht had begged to return to the battlefield after a bomb took out his Humvee in Iraq. He spent two painful years recovering from face and leg injuries, all the while pining for combat in letters from his hospital bed.
He finally got back to the front lines, but was killed less than a month into the tour of duty he desperately wanted.
“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.’’
An Associated Press tally shows Leicht is the 1,000th US service member killed in the Afghan conflict. The first death — nearly nine years ago — was also a soldier from the San Antonio area.
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.
Leicht’s brothers said the military also told the family that his death put the toll at 1,000.
When military officers went to tell Leicht’s parents their adopted son had died in combat, sheriff’s deputies had to help navigate them to the 130-acre family ranch tucked deep in the Texas Hill Country.
It was here that Jacob Leicht chopped thick cedar trees and hiked the rugged limestone peaks, growing up into an imposing 6-foot-5, 200-pound Marine with a soft heart.
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 beneath the road.
One detonated, the other didn’t. The blast tore through the Humvee, shooting the radio into Leicht’s face, cutting him badly, and knocking him unconscious. None of the five people 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 broke one of Jacob Leicht’s legs in two places, 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 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.’’