The small home on Rundberg Lane where Juan Pantoja Navarro grew up smells of flowers. Red roses, purple azaleas and yellow daisies are piled on the floor of the front room alongside some candles and a Bible. On the wall above, a collage of pictures highlights cherished moments in the life of this 23 year-old soldier.
Sgt. Navarro was killed by an explosive device July 7 in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Family and well-wishers crowd the tiny room as a near-constant stream of well-wishers flows into the house. Sgt. Navarro was the second youngest of 11 children. His parents immigrated to Austin from Mexico. He was one of just three in the family born in the U.S.
His cousin Patricia Pantoja remembers the time a 12-year-old Juan rode a bike into his grandparents’ home in the mining town of Celaya.
“Look at what I brought my uncle,” Pantoja said in Spanish. “He can ride it while he tends to his sheep. And my dad was like, ‘Son, we walk in here. There’s no way to ride a bike in this place.’ But he was like, ‘But, uncle, I brought you transportation so you won’t get so tired anymore.’”
Sgt. Navarro was known for his generosity.
His sister Consuelo says their parents encouraged their kids to give. Even now, Consuelo stands in the kitchen making sure every person who stops by to pay respects is fed. As she examines the giant pot of fresh soup that simmers on the stove, Consuelo talks about Sgt. Navarro’s last visit. He told her he wanted to go back to college and become an immigration attorney. He also said he’d learned the world was cruel and he didn’t want to have kids of his own. But he promised to pamper his 28 nieces and nephews.
“‘I want to teach them, I want to take them on trips, I want to do so many things with them,’” Consuelo remembered him saying.
Sgt. Navarro graduated from Lanier High School, where he played bass drum in the marching band. He met Alex Ortega on the drumline, where they became fast friends, sweating through many practices. Ortega says his friend was all about the team. His personal mission was to lighten up anyone who felt sad or down. Everyone said he had a great smile.
“He played the bottom bass drum,” Ortega said, “which is the biggest, loudest bass drum. In a sense, that’s the heart of the band – that boom, boom. You know? Low, deep voice – strong, resonant, boom. Keeps the pulse and keeps the band and drum line moving – much like himself.”
Ortega says Sgt. Navarro never stopped trying. He was encouraged – and also “pushed” – sometimes to the point of tears – by his percussion teacher Robert Monroy. He said Navarro was dedicated to his bandmates, all about “the team.” And he was always practicing, always wanting to be better.
“There was a moment where Juan got to that point where it got really hard for him,” Monroy said. “He didn’t know if he could get it done. He came out to me – almost broken. ‘I don’t think I can do this. This is really hard. Everyone else is better than me. I think I am holding them back.’ ‘Juan – you are not holding anyone back.’ He didn’t want to disappoint anyone – and he never did. And he came through. He came through with a smile on his face, of course.”
His cousin Patricia said Navarro was like that in everything – he wasn’t fearless, he just worked hard to face all his fears and challenges head on.
“Whenever he visited, he would get to ride the horse,” she said. “He was a little frightened by the horse, so we would pull the lead rope gently. And he’d be like, ‘Pull harder!’ ‘No, because he’ll drop you and then you’ll cry.’ And he’d be like, ‘Nah! Just pull it.’”
Juan Pantoja Navarro joined the Army in 2008. He served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. A funeral for Sgt. Navarro is at 10 a.m. today at Cook-Walden Funeral Home on North Lamar. He will be laid to rest at 3 p.m. at the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery in Killeen. His name will be chiseled into the stone of the Veterans Memorial at the Travis County Courthouse.