Jesse Dietrich used to tell his Aunt Neta that he was going to be famous.
Dietrich’s dream has come true, even though he isn’t here to see it. The 20-year-old Army private was killed in a fire fight in the Kandahar Province of Afghanistan on Aug. 25, 2011, a world away from his home on Tranquility Drive in Rendon.
The boy who played oboe in his middle school band was quiet before he joined the military, but his life and death continue to get attention, from strangers to military honors groups and even ESPN.
On the day of his funeral, hundreds of people lined the street, waving flags and silently saluting more than 100 miles from Mansfield to the Diamond Y Youth Ranch in Gustine, where he was buried.
“They put flags on the side of the road,” his aunt, Auneta Southern, remembered. “They let the kids out of school to stand on the side of the road. I was amazed. We talk about it a lot. He affected so many people after all.”
Almost three years later, Dietrich’s story is still moving people. On Sunday, more than a two dozen Patriot Guard members and the group Tribute to Fallen Soldiers saluted his family, presenting Auneta and Rex Southern and Dietrich’s son, Kevin, with a plaque and portrait of Jesse in a ceremony at Skyvue Funeral Home.
And that was the same week that ESPN called after Capt. Alejandro Villanueva, 24, signed as a free agent to play with the Philadelphia Eagles. The 6-foot-9, 277-pound Villanueva has served three tours in Afghanistan, the first as a young lieutenant fresh out of West Point and in charge of Dietrich’s unit.
“He said they had a roll call after the fire fight and Dietrich didn’t answer,” Auneta Southern said. “He went back and saw Jesse on the ground. Jesse looked up and said, ‘Help me, sir.’ He pulled him out of the way. He said he didn’t want them to mess him up too bad before he could get him home.”
Dietrich and Villanueva both earned Bronze Stars, one of the highest honors in the military, awarded for acts of heroism, merit or meritorious service in a combat zone. Dietrich was also posthumously promoted to specialist and awarded the Purple Heart.
“(Villanueva) came to see us and told us he didn’t think he deserved the Bronze Star because he didn’t get Jesse out alive,” said Southern, shaking her head.
Villanueva went on to become an Army Ranger and now is making news with his new career in the NFL.
Dietrich’s family appreciates the cards, letters, photos, calls, emails and visits from the members of his Army unit, family and friends. But they still struggle to deal with his death.
Rex and Auneta Southern raised her younger sister’s children, Jesse and his little sister, Jocelyn, since they were small, finally taking them full time when Jesse was in the third grade. Dietrich’s adopted father, Chief Warrant Officer Paul Dietrich, was in the Army and often deployed, she said.
“(Jesse) always called us aunt and uncle, but he told us we were the only parents he ever knew, this was the only stable home he ever had,” Auneta Southern said.
Although the Southerns’ three sons were almost grown, they stepped in and started over with Jesse and Jocelyn. The children grew up in the small house under the pine trees, where Jesse learned to fish, climbed trees and made his family laugh. Turbulent teen years led him to live with family friends at a youth ranch in Gustine, where he settled down, his aunt said. His mother moved to Midlothian and brought Jesse to live with her. There he met a Joanna, and a baby was soon on the way. Jesse finished school while living in Venus with his aunt and uncle, Tiffany and Douglas Davy.
“After Kevin came along, I wasn’t surprised that he joined the Army,” Southern said. “He wanted to have a good life for him.”
Kevin, now a sturdy almost 5-year-old, was barely 2 when his father was killed. Dietrich left a recording of himself reading a book for his son that Kevin’s mom played to him every night before bed.
“He said I was cute and I had beautiful eyes,” Kevin said of his “Army Dad.” “I know he said ‘I love you.’”
Rex Southern and his oldest son joined the Patriot Guard, a group of volunteer motorcyclists that escort funeral processions of fallen soldiers, a group they had not heard of until Dietrich’s death.
“I taught him how to fish, hunt, skin a fish, everything a father would do,” he said. “I tried to treat him like he was my own.
“It’s still hard today,” said Rex Southern, who also served in the Army. “This changes your look on patriotism. This brings you closer to God. When God takes somebody, he has his reasons.”
Auneta Southern remembers the good things, rocking him to sleep and singing “You Are My Sunshine” and how she could never stay mad at Jesse because he would just grin and say “I like pie!” to make her laugh.
“There’s no doubt that I miss him,” she said. “I want to keep his memory alive.”