NORMAL — Sal Garza is a Leatherneck now, but he hasn’t forgotten his days as a Wildcat.
To show his thanks to Normal Community West High School, where he graduated in 2012, the Marine lance corporal from Bloomington has given the school a flag flown over the battlefield in Afghanistan while he was deployed there.
The flag was presented Monday to Principal Dave Johnson by Garza’s family. A plaque notes it was flown at Camp Leatherneck, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, on Nov. 30 in honor of Normal West.
In a message read by his brother — and fellow Marine — Pfc. Raymundo Garza, Sal Garza thanked his teachers at Normal West.
“I am here today because of their belief in me,” Sal Garza wrote. “All that pushing me and helping me paid off.”
From talking to people who knew him in high school, it didn’t take a lot of pushing.
“As far back as I remember, he wanted to be a Marine,” said Johnson, who was an assistant principal while Sal Garza was at Normal West.
“When students leave, you hope you’ve had an impact on their life,” Johnson said. “Things like this help confirm that.”
John Bierbaum, a social studies teacher, said Sal Garza’s gesture “means a lot to me.”
He said it’s often not until years later, if at all, that a teacher finds out they have made a difference.
“It’s great for all the students to see you don’t leave the high school behind upon graduation,” Bierbaum said.
In accepting the flag, Johnson said the school is “very proud of Sal.”
Each year about 15 to 20 members of the graduating class, which averages about 400, enters the military, he said.
Sal Garza finished his deployment to Afghanistan shortly before Christmas and is back at his base in Okinawa.
His brother, who graduated this year from Normal West, hopes to join him in Japan after completing his training in a few weeks. Both are trained as motor transport operators for the Marines.
Both were on the wrestling team at Normal West.
“As kids, we were always together. Everything he did, I did,” said Raymundo Garza, wearing his uniform, with sharply creased pants and well-polishes shoes. “I decided to follow his footsteps after he joined the Marines.”
He also gave credit to his teachers at Normal West, saying, “I did leave with a good head on my shoulders.”
Having two sons in the Marines at the same time makes their father, Salvador Sr., proud, but he said it is also scary.
“I’m always thinking about how they’re doing and what they’re doing,” he said.
Their mother, Rebecca, also said, “It’s hard; it’s very hard,” but she added, in reference to Sal, “He’s so happy.”
Sal and Raymundo are the oldest of six siblings — five brothers and one sister — and their mother said they have always been close.
“They share so much,” she said.