Sunday, March 18, 2007 | 7:23 a.m.
When Jan Lukac served in the Czechoslovakian Army in the mid-1960s, his primary job was to guard a checkpoint on the Austrian border.
The soldier he bunked with had orders to aim a Kalashnikov submachine gun at Lukac's back to discourage Lukac from escaping from the Communist government he, his father and father's father loathed.
Lukac said that had he died at that time, he would have died for nothing.
One of his few comforts in the death of his son, Marine Pfc. John Lukac, in the war in Iraq 2 1/2 years ago was that the Durango High honors student died fighting for something - freedom for a people who lived under the type of tyranny Jan Lukac and his wife, Helena, had long endured.
"My son is a hero - I am no hero," Lukac said, noting the Communists had to drag him from a hiding place and conscripted him.
"In a Communist country I never had any freedoms. Muslims in Iraq also deserve freedom. Many people sacrifice their lives for that."
Helena Lukac, who with her husband has been a driving force for honoring the local war dead, agreed: "Freedom is not free. It comes at a huge price."
On the eve of the fourth anniversary of the war in Iraq, the Lukacs, who became American citizens in the late 1980s, say they are having as difficult a time now as in 2004 accepting that their son is gone.
His room in their southwest Las Vegas home remains unchanged except for gifts from strangers, thanking him for making the ultimate sacrifice.
John's single bed and his floor are covered with the tributes that include patriotic quilts, an 18-by-24-inch oil portrait of John Lukac by prolific Utah artist Kaziah Hancock, and a framed Hawaiian Medal of Honor. Lukac was stationed there before being shipped out.
Another tribute of photos and awards that includes Lukac's posthumous Purple Heart covers the mantel above the living room fireplace.
Lukac's presence indeed is everywhere in his home.
"I can still hear Johnny's voice," said his mother, a former Iron Curtain schoolteacher who now works as a domestic for the MGM Grand.
When John graduated in 2003 at age 17, he had several scholarships and had been accepted to four colleges, his family said.
But he wanted to first serve the country that had given his mom and dad their freedom, which came in 1983 when they fled Czechoslovakia.
John's parents tried to talk him out of joining the Marines because they feared for his life and believed he should first get his education.
"Johnny said too many people want to take shortcuts to their goals, but he wanted to work for the CIA, and felt he needed the military experience," Helena Lukac said. "Later, he said, he would get his education."
Jan Lukac, an engineer for Wynn Las Vegas, said his son faced a long haul persuading the U.S. government to allow the offspring of people who were born and lived in a Communist nation during the Cold War to become an American spy. But he supported his son's ambition.
"My son was very intelligent - he read a lot of books and knew things far beyond his age," Lukac said. "I believed that if he said that one day he was going to work for the CIA, then he would."
John also was a typical teenager who went on dates, played basketball, went bowling and played video games.
What finally persuaded the Lukacs to let their son join the service before his 18th birthday was that several days after Lukac graduated from high school a classmate died in an auto collision.
"He said, 'You see, a person can die in a peaceful place like this as easy as in a war zone,' " Helena Lukac said. "He said that if it was his destiny to die, it did not matter where he was at that time, that's what would happen."
At age 19, John met that destiny in a suburb of Fallujah, Iraq, where some of the fiercest and deadliest fighting of the war has occurred.
At the time of his death, John was setting up and manning checkpoints - not unlike those his father had manned during his brief military career.
The Lukacs were catalysts in getting a Nevada war memorial established at Red Rock to honor their son and other Nevadans who have died in Southwest Asia since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.
If the Lukacs have their way, they won't lose another son to this conflict.
They are helping their only other child, 17-year-old Peter Lukac, prepare for college so he can fulfill his dream of becoming an orthodontist.
Peter recently entered a scholarship essay contest sponsored by the MGM Grand. In his 1 1/2-page essay, Peter writes that his family is his inspiration - parents who bravely escaped the bonds of Communism and a brother who courageously gave his life for his country.
Jan Lukac, who wears John's dog tags near his heart, visits his son's grave at the Southern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Boulder City twice a week, often after dark because of the solitude, he said.
Helena Lukac often goes to funerals of other local soldiers and Marines who are killed in Iraq to help those families realize they are not alone.
"Losing Johnny has been our worst nightmare," Helena Lukac said. "But the support from so many people has helped us through our loss."