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Friends mourn Hollis Marine killed overseas

Those who knew Lance Cpl. Leopold F. Damas as “their boy Leo” say his love for being a U.S. Marine developed from a mixture of his personal patriotism and will to help people.

When the news arrived that Damas was killed while on duty in Afghanistan Aug. 17, the 26-year-old Jamaica native’s friends and family said they had lost one of the most caring men in their lives.

Sgt. Archieval Ortega, Damas’ best friend since their teenage days at Newtown High School, said the Marine would always put a smile on his face even when he would talk to him from the dangerous areas overseas.

“He had a positive attitude the whole time,” said Ortega, an Elmhurst native who now lives in North Carolina with his wife and two sons. “Not a lot of military members come into the Marine Corps and like what they do, but Leo was positive minded.”

Damas, who lived with his mother and siblings in Hollis and for some time in Floral Park, died during a combat operation in the Helmand province of Afghanistan, according to the U.S. Marine Corps.

He had been stationed in that country since May and during his first tour of duty in Afghanistan served as a rifleman with Company G, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 3, 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, according to the Marines.

The fledgling democracy has seen a rise in violence over the last few weeks due to last Thursday’s national election. Ortega said that in June he spoke to Damas, the godfather of his eldest son, Brandon, 5, and said his friend took pride in helping keep the peace in Afghanistan.

“They’re pushing out the insurgents and the Taliban so that the people of Afghanistan can be safe to vote. He did what he had to do,” he said.

Ortega, who had tours in Iraq, said he met Damas when they were both students at Newtown and the two hit it off. The sergeant said Damas was a extroverted friend who loved to talk about football and gangster movies.

“He was always smiling,” Ortega said in a telephone interview.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, the two friends had their patriotic values reinvigorated and decided to join the Marines when they graduated. An asthma problem kept Damas from enlisting at first, but he kept trying again, according to Ortega.

Master Sgt. Darin Bell, who helped recruit Damas at the Marine’s recruiting station on Jamaica Avenue, said he saw in him a strong determination to become a Marine.

“He wanted to get out of New York and do something different,” Bell said.

After finally enlisting in 2006, Damas rose to the rank of lance corporal and served two tours in Iraq, from March 2007 to September 2007 and July 2008 to February 2009, the Marines said.

After the second tour, Damas volunteered for a tour in Afghanistan because he not only loved being a Marine but also to help his family, according to Ortega. The Jamaica native wanted to use the extra money to buy a house for his mother, Carol, who suffers from chronic health problems, Ortega said.

“He didn’t have to go. He could have just gone to a different unit where you didn’t train anymore or redeploy,” he said.

Ortega said despite the sadness he and his other friends are experiencing now, he knew Damas lived his life the doing what he dreamed of doing all of his life.

“We just wanted to do something in our lives. Being a Marine was a big step,” he said.

A funeral was scheduled in the family’s church, St Joachim & Anne in Queens Village this Saturday, according to Ortega.

Reach reporter Ivan Pereira by e-mail at ipereira@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 146.

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