Marine is county's first Iraq war death
Sgt. Lea R. Mills, 21, a graduate of Hernando High School, was killed by an improvised explosive device while on patrol.
By JONATHAN ABEL and ASJYLYN LODER
Published April 29, 2006
BROOKSVILLE - The first time Lea R. Mills came into Christine Kostis' classroom at Hernando High School, Kostis mispronounced his name.
"I said Lea, like L-E-A-H," Kostis recalled. He was used to it. "He said, "It's Lea like pea, P-E-A. Doesn't that make sense?"
Four years later, after graduating from high school, after joining the Marine Corps, after marrying his high school sweetheart, after getting promoted to sergeant and being sent to Iraq, Lea is still remembered vividly by teachers at Hernando High.
But on Friday, Mills' family learned the 21-year-old had been killed by an improvised explosive device while on patrol in Iraq. He is the first Hernando County man to be killed in the war in Iraq. Michael Schafer of Spring Hill died in Afghanistan in July.
Mills, of Masaryktown, joined the Marines after graduation in 2002 and had recently reupped to serve longer. His father, Rob Mills, said Lea asked to go to Iraq and had been there just six weeks when he was killed.
"He felt he needed to go and wanted to go, so he volunteered," his father said. "Everybody in the family, on the men's side, has been in the service. We believe we owe it to our country."
The Department of Defense would not comment Friday on the circumstances of Mills' death, including when and where he was killed.
At the end of August 2004, Mills married Keesha Malicoate, who was two years behind him in school. They were living together in Oceanside, Calif., before Mills' deployment to Iraq.
"It wasn't an infatuation love like you see in junior high school," said teacher John Miller, who knew both of them. "They were soul mates."
Mills was so close to his best friend, Josh Perdue, that the two went everywhere together, even into the Marines.
Perdue was on a helicopter training mission in North Carolina when he heard about his friend's death, said his mother, Pam Perdue. She said her son was devastated. So was she.
"I had just talked to his mom," Pam Perdue said. "She (asked Lea), "Do you sleep with one eye open?' He said, "No, with both eyes open.' She could tell by talking to him that he was stressed."
Before they enlisted, Mills and Perdue were livening up Miller's American government and economics classes.
"They kind of skated, but they loved school. They were the kind of goof-offs you liked," Miller said. "They always participated when we talked about the military."
A few years after graduating, Mills came back to Hernando High to give a motivational speech. He told the kids to buckle down and study. If he had it to do over, he said, he would have been valedictorian.
Miller said his demeanor had changed. "Lea had something with his voice that would crack like a teenager," Miller remembers. "He came back from the Marines and he had a man's voice."
On Friday, hours before she heard about Mills' death, art teacher Roxanne Campbell was thinking of him. During first period, she was showing her class one of Mills' pieces - a clay slab with a cartoon of an American soldier carved in it - and talking about her former student. When she heard of Lea's death, the coincidence was eerie.
Lea left behind a 17-year-old brother, Parker Mills, who has talked about enlisting and wants to be a pilot. Parker decided to go to school Friday after hearing the news about his brother. The Nature Coast Technical High School student told his father he needed to stay busy and wanted to be with his friends.
Mother Dee Mills, who got the call at 6:15 Friday morning from her daughter-in-law, flew to California to be with Keesha.
Mills had asked to be buried on a family plot in White Plains, Miss. His father said the family will hold a memorial service in Hernando County after the funeral.
"He loved what he did. He was very proud of what he did. We're extremely proud of him," Rob Mills said. "He died for what he believed in."
At Hernando High, guidance counselor Melody Whitaker was looking over a yearbook. She cried as she pointed to the Class of 2002's motto: "Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened."
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Jonathan Abel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 352 754-6114.
[Last modified April 29, 2006, 01:17:17]
[an error occurred while processing this directive]