Daughters of soldier killed in Iraq are in for a big surprise

I'm going to tell you a story, but you must promise to keep it a secret for a couple of days.

It involves a fallen soldier, his daughters and the car he didn't live to restore. It is a tale of dedication, donation and discounts to bring his dream alive.

Many years ago, Turlock's Ray Hill II bought a 1965 Mustang. In 1994, the car developed an overheating problem. So Hill asked brother Rod, then an automotive student at Modesto Junior College, to solve the mystery.

One day, the car suddenly developed much more than an overheating issue.

"A buddy wanted a ride to work, but I had to take a test and couldn't give him one," Rod Hill said. "So I flipped him the keys, and less than two blocks away, he wrapped it around a telephone pole and totaled it."

Several years later, Ray Hill II — an engineering technician for the Modesto Irrigation District and an Army National Guard captain assigned to the Modesto- based 1st Battalion of the 184th Infantry Regiment — began looking for another Mustang to restore.

He found it in Stockton. But his wife, Dena, felt they couldn't afford what it would take to bring the car back to show quality.

Ultimately, though, she conspired with Rod and father-in-law Ray Hill to buy the car for her husband as a gift.

"It was a basket case," Rod Hill said. "The engine was all messed up. It sat until he finally started taking it apart the year before he went to Iraq."

Ray Hill II never got to finish the job. He died Oct. 29, 2005, when an explosive device detonated near his armored vehicle south of Baghdad.

His death left his wife and two daughters, who shared his love of cars, with a dilemma. Dena knew she couldn't afford to complete the restoration he had planned.

"I didn't really know what to do with it after my husband died," said Dena, who moved the family to Sioux City, Iowa, to be closer to her parents. "The best thing would be to leave it with Rod. That's what (Ray) would have wanted."

Eldest daughter BreeAnna disagreed.

"She was really upset when I told her I was giving the car to Uncle Rod," Dena Hill said.

Rod Hill, meanwhile, decided he would restore the car and then give it to Ray's daughters, BreeAnna, now 18, and Alyssa, 15. But it was going to cost more money than he could spare. So he set up a booth at a local car show in July 2006. He asked for help on Mustang forums on the Internet.

As word got out, he heard from many people who knew Ray or had learned of his death through newspaper coverage. Or people who, like Ray, love Mustangs. Or people who understood what it would mean for a family to honor their fallen son, husband, dad and brother by bringing that Mustang back to life.

Don Paradiso of Los Banos volunteered his time to do the body and paint work. Rod received donations or discounts on parts and paint.

Hill's brothers Ron and Russ, who no longer live in the valley, helped by locating parts or donating cash.

"We had parts donated by people from local all the way to Pennsylvania," Rod Hill said.

Scott Drake Enterprises, a Mustang parts reproduction specialist in Henderson, Nev., provided some parts free of charge and discounted others.

Students at Los Banos High, where Rod Hill teaches drafting, architecture and automotive repair, did much of the restoration work.

In all, Rod Hill said, they received more than $15,000 in donated or discounted parts, cash and labor.

"If it had been done at a (restoration) shop, it would have cost about $60,000," he said.

Ray Hill II's wife and daughters will be arriving in the valley tonight to spend Easter weekend with family members here.

Saturday morning, the family will attend a car show at the National Guard Armory at 933 Kansas Ave. in Modesto. At first, Ray Hill II's daughters will think they're looking at a 1965 Mustang restored just as their dad would have done had he lived.

Then, their uncles will hand them the keys.

"I'm sure there will be lots of emotions," Rod Hill said.

The Hills will ship the Mustang back to Iowa this summer. In theory, high school senior BreeAnna would drive it until Alyssa turns 16 and can share behind-the-wheel time.

Not so fast, mom said. BreeAnna will be heading off to college in South Dakota in the fall. The car stays in Iowa.

"The plan is that it's going to be housed at my house," Dena Hill said. "We'll bring it out for summertime car shows and special events. (BreeAnna) won't be driving it as much as she'd probably like."

The key, Rod Hill said, is to prevent the girls from knowing until Saturday morning what so many others know now. They won't have Internet access, and family members who want the story told — and approve of this column's timing — will try to keep them away from print editions of The Bee.

"Lots of people know about the car and are in on it," he said. "Just don't tell the girls what's going on."

So, can you keep a secret?

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at or 578-2383.