Private First Class Cory Hiltz (April 28, 1987 – June 28, 2007) — La Verne’s No. 1 Hero —

April 24, 2009
Share this story:
Cory with his niece, with smiles to light up the room.

Cory with his niece, with smiles to light up the room.

Look at the pictures of this remarkable young man, Cory Hiltz, La Verne’s war hero. Look at his youth, look at his radiance, look at his warmth, look at his love of family, look at his love of the outdoors, look at his wholesomeness (that’s a Coke can sitting in the cup holder in the photo below), look at his love of country, look at his handsomeness and virility, look at his confidence, his optimism, his strength of character, his goodness. Look at his smile.

He could have been your son; he could have been my son. He is La Verne’s native son. He is the ever-living son of Wayne and Debra Hiltz, longtime residents of La Verne, before moving to Rocklin near Sacramento in 2006, not long after Cory’s graduation from Lutheran High School in La Verne. He is the face behind the flag that flutters on Wheeler Avenue just south of Foothill, where not since his death in Iraq on June 28, 2007 from a horrific enemy bomb blast has a day passed that some friend or soul has not left a flower, note or tiny American flag symbolizing his bravery and sacrifice for all that we hold dear and cherish in this country.

Tuesday, April 28, is Cory’s birthday. He would have been 22. Wherever you are on this day, take a moment to salute this young hero whom his sister Kayla (Bonita graduate, 1998) called her “smiling heart.” Smiling heart is also the name of the scholarship that Cory’s alma mater, Lutheran High School, will award in his loving memory next month to a Lutheran student who in some small part will be given the honor and responsibility of carrying Cory’s life force forward.

After graduating from Lutheran in 2005, Cory attended Citrus College, with an interest in law enforcement. Defending the little guy from brute force ran through his veins. His father Wayne remembers Cory watching a nature program on television when he was a young boy. When a small animal was attacked by a larger one, he began to cry.

 “He said ‘Dad, why is he hurting him? He didn’t do anything,’ ” Wayne recalled.

Cory at the helm.

Cory at the helm.


Thinking that military service could help gain the maturity and experience he felt he needed for a career in law enforcement, Cory entered an Army recruiting station across the street from Citrus that fall, before joining the Army in February 2007, just 19 years of age. While Cory was considering a position with the military police, the Army, basing its judgment on his superior testing, recommended he would do well as part of computer unit, a more prestigious and challenging position. As a result, Cory was trained as a forward observer (a “fister) in an infantry unit (Baker Company), a role in which he would survey the location of enemy forces and relay their computer coordinates back to his team. He was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, and 2nd Infantry Division, based in Fort Carson, Colo. His unit originally started as an artillery company in the Korean Conflict (1950-53), but with war on global terrorism raging, it had been transferred and transformed into an infantry unit based in Fort Carlson.

With eight months of initial and advanced training under his belt, he deployed to Iraq on Oct. 15, 2006, a several-stop odyssey that took him from Fort Carlson, to Dallas, to Germany, to Kuwait and finally to Baghdad to patrol the war ravaged and chaotic city. Over the next several months, unknown to the Hiltzes at the time, the largely Sunni and Al-Qaeda enemy attacked his Humvee on at least five different occasions with hand grenades and improvised explosive devices, including the day he was to come home on leave. A grenade exploded on the Humvee’s hood, but the vehicle’s standard armor had protected him. Cory had hoped for a “quiet day,” but he knew he was probably asking for too much.

On May 30, 2007, Corey’s parents picked him up at the Sacramento airport. “Deep into the drive home there was a quiet period and I looked over and saw he was smiling,” Wayne told the Associated Press at the time. “I said ‘What’s that for?’ And he said ‘I love living in U.S.’ ”

A couple of deck hands, Cory and his father Wayne.

A couple of deck hands, Cory and his father Wayne.

When he was about to return to Iraq, Cory and his father talked about the war. “He was not happy about it, but he said ‘Dad, I made a commitment to my country. I don’t want to go back. But I made a commitment and I’m going to fulfill my obligation.’” While home, Cory was text-messaged that four of his fellow soldiers were injured when an enemy combatant threw a grenade down their Humvee’s gun turret. A sergeant with whom he was also very close sustained career-ending injuries from another IED attack his well.

In his interview with La Verne Online, Wayne explained that his son’s commitment was to his country and his “buddies” who were still over there. “His country had sent him to do a job, that’s how he looked at it,” Wayne said. During his leave, Cory also returned to La Verne and camped overnight at Frank Bonelli Regional Park with his friends. He also visited the Lutheran High School campus. Describing Cory’s high school years, Wayne said, “He just had a great experience at Lutheran High.”

Wayne Hiltz at site of banner memorial on Wheeler Avenue just south of Foothill Blvd.

Wayne Hiltz at site of banner memorial on Wheeler Avenue just south of Foothill Blvd.

His leave over, Corey left Sacramento on June 15, 2007 to return to Iraq. After a short re-acclamation period in Kuwait, he rejoined his combat unit in the notorious Al-doura mahalas or city districts of Baghdad.  He was part of the new U.S. surge, a major counter-insurgency effort that was just finding its full stride. Normally, protocol gave returning soldiers a few days to adjust to their old surroundings, but with his unit barely able to muster enough soldiers for patrol, he volunteered to go out the next day after he had arrived — the 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift on June 28.

At 1:53 p.m., seven minutes before his patrol was to end, Cory was driving back to the base when a 250-pound bomb buried beneath the street was detonated, killing Cory and his three-soldier crew. The force of the blast tossed a second Humvee into a ditch, and a third fell into the crater caused by the explosion. In all, Sunni and Al Qaeda combatants pinned down four Humvees with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades. A medic, the first to try to exit the second Humvee, was also killed. Of the 16 soldiers on patrol duty that day, five were killed and seven were injured.

News of the deaths of Cory and his four fellow soldiers traveled swiftly back to the states — and the La Verne-like city of Rocklin. Wayne was out in his front yard when two Army officials and a chaplain pulled up in a nondescript car. Immediately understanding the import of their visit — this time the call or knock on the door was not his fears running wild again — he collapsed to the ground, and was still there when his wife Debra, entertaining family members from California and Arizona, pulled up minutes afterwards.

Cory with his grandparents.

Cory with his grandparents.

“Life will never be the same,” said Wayne, who as a Pasadena police officer for more than 30 years has seen his fair share of pain and suffering. Back at Fort Carson, the Hiltzes were able to grieve with the other families who lost sons, four of the five coming from California.

The families were each given a portrait of the “Taming of Al-Doura. It remains in a protective case in the Hiltz’s home, too graphic and realistic to hang on a bare wall. The crater from the massive bomb has left a hole in his heart.

Debra and Wayne Hiltz at a memorial for Cory and other fallen soldiers.

Debra and Wayne Hiltz at a memorial for Cory and other fallen soldiers.

A friend handed him a copy of “In Search of Meaning” by Viktor Frankl, a concentration camp survivor, “People who endured the concentration camps didn’t much talk about their experiences.” Wayne said. “Words aren’t needed; will is what’s needed

“You get up each day and you put one foot in front of the other and you keep going.”

The residents of La Verne can help the Hiltzes to keep going by showing them all of their love and support when they return here May 21 to award the “Smiling Heart” scholarship in Cory’s name, a name that lives on as the ultimate symbol of our freedom and our unpaid debt to those who walk in harm’s way to keep our families safe.

This is the first in our “Face Behind the Flag” series featuring portraits of La Verne’s service men and women.

Wayne and Debra Hiltz

Wayne and Debra Hiltz






Print This Post Print This Post

16 Responses to “Private First Class Cory Hiltz (April 28, 1987 – June 28, 2007) — La Verne’s No. 1 Hero —”

  1. As a former resident of LaVerne and close friend of the Hiltz family, I both smiled and cried when I read your article. Thank you so much for running the story. Our family knew Cory from the time he was born and were fortunate enough to have spent time with him on his last leave home. There is not a day that goes by that he doesn’t cross our minds and we feel very blessed to have had him as a part of our lives. After losing my brother a few years ago, my father once said: “the pain never goes away, you just learn to live with it”. I feel that is what Debby and Wayne are going through. Cory’s spirit will continue to live on through his many family members and friends. He was truly a blessing and we are so proud of who he was and what he represented. Thank you again.

    Sincerely, Wendy Ehlen and Family, Roseville, California

  2. Cory is the son of the finest parents, and the brother of a wonderful sister which
    is how He developed His sense of Honor, Justice and Commitment!

    Those of us who have the honor to be part of his “extended family” will never let Him
    leave and will always carry Him as an example and model of what we shall strive to be every day for the remainder of our lives!

    With Eternal Gratitude!

  3. Your Auntie has you with her each and every day. I think of sayings like “coca cola and beef jerky, there’s nothing better! Well, this is not better but we know you have to add your favorite “stuffed mushrooms” in the formula!I still feel you hugging me and leaning over my shoulder as I made them for you that last gathering at my house. Keep an eye on your cousin Travis, gonna be a Navy man!

    You bring a smile to my face and love to my heart.

    Auntie Barb

  4. Jacquie Rittenhouse
    April 26th, 2009 at 4:45 pm

    Cory has been a part of our lives since the day he was born. We watched him grow up and were so proud of him, but miss him so much every day! Thank you for doing that article about him. He will always be a true hero to us!


    Jacquie, Roger, and Ryan

  5. Jacquie Rittenhouse
    April 26th, 2009 at 4:48 pm

    We think about you all the time and miss you Cory!


    Roger, Jacquie & Ryan

  6. Hi Debbie and Wayne,
    Just a short note to thank you for forwarding this article about Cory to me. I will always remember Cory, and do daily in my prayers. I have a picture of Cory and my husband Sam in my room that I see everyday and know that they have met up there in heaven. I remember Debbie, when you and I would walk in the mornings and we would wave to Cory as he left to school. My granddaughter Lauren’s Birthday is April 30 and remember how you would talk about Cory and how much alot of his personality would remind me of Lauren’s personality. I pray for you because I do know how hard it is to lose a loved one. A day doesn’t go by that you don’t think about them and miss them. Love, Isabel

  7. Aunt Agnes & Uncle Dennis
    April 28th, 2009 at 9:55 am

    Happy Birthday, Cory

    You will always be in our loving, heartfelt thoughts.

  8. Aunt Agnes & Uncle Dennis
    April 28th, 2009 at 10:26 am

    Aunt Agnes and Uncle Dennis

    Happy Birthday, Cory

    You will always be in our loving, heartfelt thoughts.

    Love, Aunt Agnes and Uncle Dennis

  9. Happy Birthday Cor

    We Miss you everyday…

    Love You

  10. Wayne and Debby Hiltz
    April 28th, 2009 at 9:14 pm

    Our heartfelt gratitude goes out to all who have embraced our family over the past 22 months. Whether you are family, friends, acquaintences or we never had the opportunity to personally meet you, each of you that have touched our lives through your personal touch, expression of sympathy, a flower or flag left at the cemetary or memorial banner, or simply your thoughts, we will never be able to adequately express our appreciation for your various expressions of love for our son and what his life represents.

    Cory was an American Soldier! Whether he was a democrat or a republican, believed in the war or did not, none of that is important to us. He was simply an American Soldier! He was willing to, and did, make the ultimate sacrafice for our country and all that we stand for. There are no words to adequately express our pride in who our son was, and indeed is. The gravesite marker includes our eternal thoughts as it ends with the phrase, “WE LOVE YOU CORY”. It was written to reflect not only our families sentiment, but that of all who met and loved our son during his short life.

    Happy Birthday Cory. We love and miss you!

  11. Never Forget!

    With loving thanks.

    Joe Allard

  12. Wayne and Debbie, words cannot express the pain you surely feel with the loss of your beloved son Cory. Time, unfortunately, does not heal all wounds.

    But know this, your son is a HERO! A TRUE HERO! He died defending freedom, and helping those who were victims of tyranny. There is no greater calling.

    May God Bless Cory and all who suffer through his loss! Cory, Wayne, Debbie, Kayla; you have all given the ultimate sacrifice.

    You are forever in our thoughts and prayers.

    Todd and Karen Peterson

  13. God Bless! Thank you Cory for defending our great nation.

    Semper Fi

  14. Rose & Joe Hamilton
    May 1st, 2009 at 10:59 pm

    Hi Debby and Wayne,

    We think of Cory everytime we pass his memorial on Wheeler. We are so happy that you shared this reminder of his birthday. I still remember the banner on your house when he was born announcing his arrival into your family and to our neighborhood. He was the first baby born on our street! It seems like it was only a few years ago, certainly not 22 years.

    Cory was a blessing to so many while he lived on this earth. He was a fine example of a young man. We wish God’s blessings on both of you as you celebrate and remember Cory’s life.

    We miss you. Love Joe and Rose

  15. Frank and Mickey Hiltz
    May 6th, 2009 at 4:10 pm

    Dear Cory:

    From the day you were born you brought joy into our lives. We have so many wonderful memories of your far too short time with us.

    You loved your Grandma’s cooking and Grandma loved cooking for you.
    Grandpa had so much fun golfing,fishing or even going to lunch and a movie.

    We are so proud to have had you for our Grandson.

    We love you and miss you

  16. Thank you Cory…
    You truly are La Verne’s No.1 Hero.

Leave a Reply