Elaine Herrera lost her husband, Henry, to an illness in January, and this week she learned one of her three children, Sgt. 1st Class Rocky Herrera, was killed while serving with the Army in Afghanistan.

"It's devastating," Elaine Herrera said Wednesday at Herrera's childhood home in Salt Lake City.

Rocky Herrera, 43, who as a young man loved boxing and wrestling, was killed Monday in Afghanistan, reportedly while trying to shield fellow soldiers from a suicide bomber, family members said. He is the 45th person with Utah ties to die during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Deseret Morning News records.

"I'm real proud of him for what he did," Elaine Herrera said about her oldest son. "But I'll miss him with all my heart."

This week her husband's 12 brothers and sisters and their families are rallying at her home to help her get through another tough time.

Her emotions Wednesday were mixed, however, remembering how her husband didn't like serving in the Army and how he didn't want his son to join a few years after graduating from West High School.

While she called for an end to the war in Afghanistan and to bring U.S. troops back home to their families where they belong, Elaine Herrera noted how her son "believed in what he was doing."

Rocky Herrera served with an engineering battalion, whose focus was on building and repairing bridges and roads. He was on an extended 15-month deployment to Afghanistan, due back in this country next February.

He apparently died in the explosion Monday, his sister, Jeri Herrera, said. Funeral arrangements are pending the arrival of his body in the United States.

"He threw himself in front of a suicide bomber to protect his troops," Jeri Herrera said.

Rocky Herrera loved to fish with his family and once taught his sister, who now lives in Chicago, how to properly cast a line into the water.

"He told me I fished like a girl," Jeri Herrera said. But then she caught a 10-pound catfish, and he wasn't doing as well on one particular outing. "The joke became, 'You need to fish like a girl."'

Rocky Herrera and his brother, Angelo, helped remodel Jeri Herrera's second story at her home. The family remembered Rocky Herrera as being detail-oriented and disciplined in everything he did, such as building furniture and cabinets, working on cars, restoring old trucks or simply camping and playing cards with his father.

Angelo Herrera recalled how, as a boxer, Rocky Herrera had risen to Golden Gloves status as an amateur, but how he only thought he was the best at playing blackjack and other card games.

"He couldn't beat Dad," joked Rocky Herrera's uncle, Dale Lee, who sat on the porch Wednesday with the family, reminiscing.

Angelo Herrera's last moments in person with his brother were while the two were fishing for trout in Utah.

"That's what we did all the time," he said. "It was the best."

Herrera's son, Matt, 22, remembered his dad as always trying to spend as much time as he could with his two sons in Utah while also living in Washington in recent years.

"Basically, he was a role model for the both of us," Matt Herrera said. He called his dad a "child at heart."

Herrera had one month of leave last May, and he visited family in Utah during that time. Before that, Rocky Herrera was home in January for his father's funeral.

Last weekend Jeri Herrera received a short, casual e-mail from her brother in Afghanistan. "He sounded in good spirits," she said. "He said, 'It's like camping."'

Rocky Herrera leaves behind a wife, Traci, and two daughters, Tristan and Clairissa, at his home in Lacey, Wash., near Olympus and Fort Lewis, where he was stationed. He also leaves behind a second son, Mark, 20.


E-mail: sspeckman@desnews.com