AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREWalnut’s Malik Khouzam voted Southern California Boys Athlete of the Week She’ll ride in the front car in her Army fatigues, waving to the kids and their parents along the parade route. Not a five-star general or muscular GI, but a 22-year-old Latina who stands just a shade over 5 feet tall and has the heart of a tiger. The hero of the day. “Our daughter never played with toy soldiers growing up, but she didn’t play with dolls, either,” says her dad, Robert Garcia. She played basketball and roller hockey, and rode motocross, always holding her own against the boys. She still does. “I wonder sometimes, where did my little girl go?” – Sylvia Garcia She went off to war. First to Afghanistan for 10 months, then to Iraq for a year – earning the Army Commendation Medal for combat missions with Special Forces units and the 82nd Airborne Division. And next month, Army Sgt. Christina Gecse – Valencia High Class of 2001 – will return to Iraq for a third tour of duty, this time with the 118th Military Police, protecting troop convoys traveling that country’s deadly highways. Before she goes, she has a job to do here at home: Serve as grand marshal in today’s San Fernando Valley Veterans Day Parade. In Tina, organizers Fred Flores and Dan Rosales know they’ve found the perfect grand marshal for this year’s parade. “She’s a young woman, a volunteer, serving in an Airborne unit,” Flores said. “People need to know more about the major role women like Christina are playing in our military today. They’re not behind the front lines anymore.” And Rosales also knows what’s going to happen today when those crowds see the grand marshal of the parade waving to them and smiling. “She’s going to win their hearts,” he said. Yeah, she is. Christina was 17 1/2 when she came home from College of the Canyons, carrying enlistment papers she needed her parents to sign because she was too young to join the Army on her own. “I really wanted to become a police officer, but the police academy wasn’t accepting applicants under 22, and I didn’t want to wait,” she recalled. She told her parents if she joined the Army and became a military police officer, it would give her a leg up getting a job with the police department, or maybe even the FBI, after she was discharged. “We tried to hang on to her,” said her mother, Sylvia Garcia. “She was so young, we didn’t want to sign the papers. “But Tina was so passionate about it. She’s always been that way growing up – independent. Once she sets her mind to do something, she doesn’t stop until it’s done.” There was nothing they could do but sign the papers, support their daughter and pray, Robert said. She was sworn into the Army on Sept. 10, 2001. The next day, terrorists hijacked four planes and launched an attack that changed America forever. “I tried not to think too much about it, but my stomach did drop a little, but it wouldn’t have stopped me from volunteering,” Tina said now. “My country needed me now more than ever, and still does. Besides, I wouldn’t have met my husband if I hadn’t enlisted.” Seth Gecse was in Christina’s military police unit, and remains in the Army today as an MP investigator. She’s proud of her service, Christina says. Proud of the 12 parachute jumps she’s made as a member of an Airborne unit, and the countless patrols she’s been on. And if there’s one thing she wants us to think about this Veterans Day, it’s the men and women fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a few weeks, she’ll be one of them again. With that, the grand marshal of the San Fernando Valley Veterans Day Parade went back to practicing her wave. “How’m I doing?” she asked, smiling. Good enough to win a lot of hearts on the parade route. Dennis McCarthy’s column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday. Dennis McCarthy, (818) 713-3749 [email protected] 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!