Emily Perez: first female African-American officer to die in combat at 23

Theodora Aidoo March 30, 2020
Emily Perez was the first black woman to achieve the rank of Cadet Command Sergeant Major in the history of the United States Military Academy - Pic Credit: defaultcrossfit.com

Emily Perez was the first black woman to achieve the rank of Cadet Command Sergeant Major in the history of the United States Military Academy. Upon her graduation from the academy in 2005, she was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the U.S Army.

Born on February 19, 1983 in Heidelberg, Germany to a military family, Perez helped start an HIV-AIDS ministry at her church while in High School. She was also an HIV/AIDS educator with the Red Cross.

She went on to the United States Military Academy at West Point where she was a four-year letter earner on the track team, served as Cadet Command Sergeant Major. 

Described as the “diminutive young woman calling out orders to the freshman cadets on the castled military campus of West Point. She was often seen sprinting the third leg for Army’s 400-meter relay team. Or in the school’s gospel choir, filling her lungs and opening her mouth to sing”.

Emily was a member of Peace Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. “Emily, as far as I’m concerned, was one of the most brilliant people I ever met. She was the consummate intellectual,” said the Rev. Michael Bell, executive pastor at Peace Baptist Church in Washington. “But she was not the kind of person who was only book-oriented. She always wanted to help someone, to help the community.”

In a bid to help others, Perez made personal sacrifices. “Shortly before shipping out to Iraq, Lieutenant Perez flew from Texas to Maryland to be a bone marrow donor to a stranger who was a match,” Pastor Bell said.

Emily Perez
Pic Credit: American Women Veterans

Perez, the first female minority Cadet Command Sergeant Major in the history of the U.S Military Academy, had a short life. “She was like a little superwoman . . . so full of energy and life, and she was just willing to do anything,” Meghan Venable-Thomas, a senior who also ran track and sang in the choir with Perez said.

She was deployed to Iraq with the 204th Support Battalion, 1st Infantry Division in December 2005 as a Medical Service Corps officer and there the 23-year-old soldier from Fort Washington in Prince George’s County, 2nd Lt2nd Lt. Emily J.T. Perez was killed while on duty in Al Kifl, Iraq, on Sept. 12 2016.

She was killed when an improvised explosive device detonated near her Humvee during combat operations in Kifl, Iraq. Emily was the first female graduate of West Point to die in the Iraq Wardia, the first West Point graduate of the “Class of 9/11” to die in combat, and the first female African-American officer to die in combat. 

Perez earned numerous awards including the Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Army Commendation Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Army Service Ribbon, the Overseas Service Ribbon, and the Combat Action Badge.

She also posthumously received the NCAA Award of Valor in 2008 that recognizes a “courageous action or noteworthy bravery” by persons involved with intercollegiate athletics.

The soldiers in her former unit have honored her with a street named “Emily’s Way” and a medical center named the, “Emily J.T. Perez Treatment Facility” in Iraq.

One of her mentors, Roger Pollard, who worked with her when she volunteered with the Alexandria Red Cross HIV-AIDS peer education program, recalled her remarkable ability to stay focused, always on time, always ready to work.

Last Edited by:Theodora Aidoo Updated: April 3, 2020


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