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King High graduate dies in Afghanistan, leaving young family

Ivan and Jen Lechowich on their wedding day last November in Valrico. Their daughter, Natalie Marie, was born prematurely, ensuring that her father saw her — if only once.

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Ivan and Jen Lechowich on their wedding day last November in Valrico. Their daughter, Natalie Marie, was born prematurely, ensuring that her father saw her — if only once.

VALRICO — Nobody expected her for another 10 days, but there she was: the first child of Ivan and Jen Lechowich, born Sept. 23 at 8:54 a.m.

Her father was happy, amazed, almost quiet — and far away from Brandon Regional Hospital. The Army first lieutenant stationed in Afghanistan could see his daughter only by Skype. He and his wife debated the name, then compromised: Natalie Marie.

The father and daughter would never get any closer than that.

Lechowich, 27, a 2002 graduate of King High School, was killed Wednesday after his unit was hit by an improvised explosive device, according to the Department of Defense. Two other soldiers were also killed.

Lost on no one is this: If Natalie Marie had come into the world on her due date, her father would have never seen her face.

"It's a beautiful thing, it's a sad thing," sighed the Rev. Bill Swengros of St. Stephen Catholic Church in Valrico, where the couple was married last November.

Lechowich could have done anything, his family and friends say. Smart and funny, he was in the IB program at King. He played baritone saxophone in the high school band. He graduated with a history degree from the University of Florida. He thought about becoming a lawyer.

But the military was already part of his life. His father, Richard, is a retired lieutenant colonel, and the family had spent years moving around military bases until they settled in Tampa, his younger sister, Erika, said.

So they weren't surprised when he decided to join the Army two years ago.

"He was all about it," Erika said. "He really enjoyed what he did. He was excited about the opportunity to be deployed."

After college, and before he joined the military, he returned home and took a job at Papa John's. That's where he met Jen.

She remembers a charming co-worker who finally talked her into having a drink with him. She said she loved him ever since.

"He's, like, invincible," said Jen, her voice breaking. "You can't get Ivan down. He was what you want to be. He's just unstoppable. He could do anything he wanted to do."

Swengros, the priest who married the couple last November, said Lechowich "got it."

"He described himself to me as being a class clown," Swengros said. "I just saw it more as an easy-going personality, not uptight. I saw him as a very gentle, very intelligent person. Somebody who really loved serving his country. He had his head on straight."

The entire family is close-knit. After her husband was deployed, a pregnant Jen didn't stay alone at the Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., base. She moved back to Valrico to stay with his parents.

She said she and Ivan had made plans. One more baby, maybe two. See where the Army would take them. Meet new people. Live in places she had only read about. Then come home to Florida.

"We loved the life," she said.

Natalie Marie didn't see her father after that first day. She was sleeping when he called again. But Jen did.

It was this past Tuesday night. She and her father-in-law got on the computer. But Ivan didn't have much time to talk. He was packing up. He had to go out on a mission.

They hung up. But she knew he would call when he got back.

Times staff writers Shelley Rossetter, Marlene Sokol and Jessica Vander Velde contributed to this report. Reach Jodie Tillman at jtillman@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3374.

1st Lt. Lechowich

Services have not been finalized for 1st Lt. Ivan Lechowich. He is survived by his wife, Jen; his daughter, Natalie Marie; his parents, Richard and Gina; and his sister, Erika.

King High graduate dies in Afghanistan, leaving young family 09/30/11 [Last modified: Friday, September 30, 2011 10:23pm]
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