Iraq war casualty spurs memorial at Clovis East

Before his life was cut short in 2007 by a roadside bomb while serving in Iraq, Michael Rojas had told his mother he wanted to make a difference in the world.

Meanwhile, Clovis East teacher Don Van Ness wanted to honor Rojas, his former student and the only Clovis East alumnus to be killed in war, but he didn't know how to do it.

After talking to a few people, Van Ness, Rojas' ninth-grade science teacher, learned that district officials always had planned to have a large memorial in front of the school's administrative office after Clovis East opened in 1999.

Now, because of Rojas, a 2004 graduate, and Van Ness, the memorial will be built. The project will be placed along a meandering walkway surrounded by a grove of trees.

"There was not a memorial here and there needed to be," Van Ness said.

Rojas' mother, Debbie Apodaca, says her son is now part of something larger than himself, and she is grateful his school remembered him.

"I am very thankful to the Lord that he has blessed me with people who have not forgotten my boy," she said. "Sometimes I feel like it's just us living this nightmare."

Rojas' sister, Marissa Cordova, graduated from Clovis East last year, and his other sister, Samantha Apodaca, is entering eighth grade in August at Reyburn Intermediate School, which is next door to the high school.

Samantha and Michael "were very close, and it has been really hard for her," Debbie Apodaca said.

Samantha told her mother that she will be proud to see her brother's name inscribed on the campus.

It was not until after Rojas died that Apodaca realized how important Clovis East was to him. He was a defensive back on the school's Valley championship football team in 2004.

"Clovis East was a big part of his life and I learned that even more after he passed away by talking to his [Army] friends," she said.

Van Ness said supporters have donated cement and architectural drawings; a fellow teacher, Jack Crabtree, paid for Rojas' plaque.

"I had been thinking about getting a bronze plaque and placing it in the little garden outside my room in recognition of Mike," said Crabtree, a math teacher who is an Air Force veteran. "When Don [Van Ness] sent out an e-mail for a fundraiser to pay for a memorial for him, I offered to cover the cost, which was a little over $400 ... so they wouldn't have to do the fundraising."

Pavers will sell for $100 each to finance the project and memorialize students who died. Major donors who provide $1,000 or more will have their names inscribed on a plaque at the memorial.

The memorial will be installed this summer and ready for the new school year. It will be divided into three areas to honor those who died in war, those who passed away while attending high school and graduates who died after leaving Clovis East. Thus far, 15 Clovis East alumni have died.

"With this, Michael is living his dream," Apodaca said. "This memorial goes beyond words."