Iraq War casualty continues to leave his mark
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It’s been 10 years since Pfc. Omar E. Torres was killed in Iraq by a makeshift bomb, yet his legacy is still picking up steam.
In the Archer Heights neighborhood where he grew up, the original kindergarten class at Pfc. Omar E. Torres Charter School will graduate from 8th grade in June.
Just last fall, the Ohio State University, where Torres was a student before deciding to enlist in the National Guard, named one of its student dormitories Torres Hall in his honor.
And on June 4, Torres’ family will host its annual memorial potluck at De La Salle Institute to raise money for the Omar Torres scholarship fund.
What began as a simple picnic in the forest preserves intended to serve as a grief-coping mechanism for Torres’ extended family now pays each year for three students to attend the South Side high school from which he graduated.
“Last year, there were 400 and some people. It’s crazy,” said Omar’s father Oscar, a retired Chicago firefighter.
That’s a long speech for Oscar, who is generally more comfortable finishing the sentences of his wife Doris, a retired CPS librarian.
It was a decidedly more relaxed Doris and Oscar that I encountered last week than the first time we gathered in their Southwest Side dining room in 2009.
The occasion back then was the surprise decision to name the UNO charter school at 4248 W. 47th St. for Omar, but grateful as they were, the Torreses were still struggling with their pain two years after his death and found it difficult to talk about him.
That’s not to say it’s easy for them now.
But they have reached a certain comfort level, in part, from seeing how their son’s selfless example of a short life well-lived continues to serve as an inspiration to others.
“We’re stronger today than we were then,” Doris confirmed. “I would have never thought I would be in this place in 10 years.”
Joining us were Omar’s two older siblings, sister Oralia Mathew and brother Oscar, who are gradually taking over responsibility for preserving their brother’s memory.
“Over the years, we’ve turned his memory into a legacy, and that’s what I think our ultimate goal is,” said Oralia, who works for a veterans organization. “It shows our community that someone so young can dedicate his life to people he didn’t know.”
Omar’s parents didn’t want him to join the military. He’d tried to enlist right out of high school, and they thought they’d talked him into finishing college first.
He’d been a hard-hitting linebacker for the De La Salle football team and a good student who was recruited by several Ivy League schools after scoring well on his college entrance exams.
Father Paul Novak, president at De La Salle, recalls him as “inquisitive, bright, full of energy and motivated,” but also “rambunctious in the sense that he would test the limits.”
He didn’t necessarily accept all the limits either, which his parents have come to accept not so much as disobedience but as determination to pursue his goals.
Doris tells the story that Omar wanted to join the boxing club, and she wouldn’t sign the permission waiver. She would later find out he trained with the team anyway.
Omar went to Ohio State on an academic scholarship. He tried out for the football team but was undersized for the Big Ten at 5-foot-9, 180 pounds and turned his attention to the classroom.
Despite getting good grades, his parents would later learn he’d signed up for ROTC shortly after arriving on campus and then for active duty six months after that.
He explained to them he wanted to join the military because “that’s a good place to go to change things.” They accepted his decision.
Omar was killed Aug. 22, 2007, just three months after arriving in the Middle East.
Omar would have celebrated his 30th birthday May 18. But for his family, he is forever frozen in time as his 20-year-old self, the handsome young man in uniform in the photo accompanying this article.
They will never know what he would have made of his life if he hadn’t pushed past their objections.
Would he have forged the career in politics he had imagined? Would he have pursued an opportunity to go to West Point? Would he have married that girl he’d met at Ohio State?
“That’s the hardest part for me,” said brother Oscar, a Chicago police detective.
Rather than dwell on what Omar missed, though, the Torres family concentrates on what he accomplished by committing himself to serve others.
Doris wants to install a glass cabinet at the charter school with pictures of Omar as a youngster so that students there will understand he started off just like them.
“I would like for them to relate to him and say, ‘Yeah, I can do that. I can be a person like this,’” she said.
In the meantime, they’re making final preparations for this year’s De La Salle picnic, which will feature a performance by country singer Rockie Lynne.
“The nice thing is that the people still come out. They come and join us,” Omar’s father said.
They’d love for you to join them, too.