Soldier enlisted 'to access all his dreams,' but died in Iraq
David Toomalatai, 19, spent time with his baby son before tour as a medic. He is the youngest South Bay fatality so far.
By Andrea Sudano and Larry Altman
When he's old enough to understand them, 10-month-old Damien Toomalatai will watch his father's football highlight films from his days at Banning High School in Wilmington.
"I have lots of pictures," the baby's mother, Daniela Perera, said Tuesday. "He's going to know him. There's a lot of people to talk to him about his dad."
Damien's father, Pfc. David T. Toomalatai, a medic in the U.S. Army, died in Iraq on Friday when an ambulance he was riding in rolled over a land mine as he picked up injured soldiers, friends and family said. The 19-year-old Carson resident had been in Iraq less than three months.
Toomalatai, who shared the same April 2, 1987, birthday as his girlfriend, became the youngest South Bay resident to die in Iraq since the war began in 2003, and the first to die in 2007.
"It's so weird when somebody that you're used to seeing, and talking to, isn't there any more," said his 18-year-old sister, Savali Toomalatai, who spoke to him the day before he died.
"It sounded like he was very concerned and very scared," she said. "But at the same time, he held up to his part. He went to it full on. He really believed he was protecting the United States and protecting his family."
A 2005 graduate of Banning who played wide receiver on the varsity football team and lettered in volleyball, Toomalatai had hoped for a college athletic scholarship and a professional football career. But nearing graduation, he knew that dream wasn't to be, his sister said.
Attending community college and working at a pharmacy, Toomalatai decided to join the Army when he learned that Perera, his longtime high school sweetheart, was pregnant.
He decided he needed a full-time job and tuition to eventually go to college to become a physician's assistant, Perera said. The father-to-be wasn't troubled about going off to war.
"He wasn't worried," Perera said. "I kept telling him, 'Don't go.' He said, 'It's going to be good in the long run. When I come back, it will be all good. I'm going to school.' "
Mary Bane, Toomalatai's science teacher, said she spoke with the young couple when they told her their news.
"I think one of the reasons he joined the military was to be able to access all of his dreams," Bane said. "He was looking at the military as a way of, 'It's a great opportunity with the college money and the family support.' "
Just before he left for training, Toomalatai, an All-Marine League defensive end in 2004, visited his sister one last time during her shift at McDonald's.
"To him, he thought he was going to come back," the sister said. "He just gave me a hug and said, 'I'll see you soon.' I didn't want to cry in front of him."
Toomalatai left for boot camp at Fort Benning, Ga., on Dec. 28, 2005, trained to become a medic at Fort Sam Houston and eventually was stationed with the 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood in Texas.
Unable to be at his girlfriend's side for their son's birth March 28, 2006, Toomalatai would come to know Damien through numerous photographs sent to him at the base. In September, the Army granted him a 10-day leave.
Finally, he held his nearly 6-month-old son for the first time.
"He was overwhelmed with the baby. He didn't know how to react. (The baby) was so big now," Perera said. "He was really happy, and he dedicated his time to the baby. He didn't want to go out."
Toomalatai sang to his boy, put him to bed, fed him and changed diapers.
On Nov. 1, Toomalatai's battalion was sent to Iraq. He wrote home, asking about his baby, saying he would come home soon.
Perera sent him care packages of Chips Ahoy! cookies and Twix candy bars.
On his MySpace.com page, Toomalatai wrote that he was in Camp Taji with the rest of the 1st Cavalry Division, "so we'll see you all soon."
He proudly wrote about his son.
"I've got a beautiful baby boy named Damien, who's my life," he wrote. "I'm pretty chilled and laid back for the most part, but you don't wanna piss me off."
The fourth of seven children, Toomalatai was very close to his large family, his sister said. His worst fear was something happening to a family member.
He was charismatic and sarcastic, but also loving and intensely competitive. He wouldn't think twice about spending $20 to try to beat his sister on air hockey games at a local arcade.
"I remember he always wanted his sons to play football just like him," his sister said. "He wanted more kids. He wanted a lot of things. I would say it wasn't his time, just because he had a lot of plans after he came back from Iraq."
Bane said Toomalatai impressed her in her physiology and Advanced Placement classes. Although he joked around, he was well-mannered and knew how to talk to adults.
"It's sad that he's gone. He had so much potential. Just tons," she said. "I always had a sense he was one of those students who was really going to go somewhere and do something. I'm really saddened at losing him so young."
The Toomalatai family received word of their son's death Friday when an Army representative appeared at their door. His Air Force veteran father kept up a brave face for the family.
His mother, who took the news badly, called his girlfriend.
"It's hard," Perera said. "Sometimes I sit there and I sit there, and I think about it. I think it's not true -- they made a mistake or something."
Funeral arrangements are pending. email@example.com