The Unknown Soldier
A year ago, newspapers reported that a 40-year-old staff sergeant from Corpus Christi had died in Iraq, the 239th U.S. fatality since the war began. But the story of Hector Perez doesn’t end there.
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The first time Elisa Perez ever feared for her life, she was taking a shower. It was an early April morning, more than a year ago. The warm water was spraying her face and neck when her chest began to pound. The bathroom spun and lost its contours, turning into a humid blur. She felt nauseated, and she pushed open the sliding glass door and felt her way out of the tub and the bathroom. She shuffled into the kitchen, reached for the phone, and dialed 911. “I’m having a heart attack,” she sputtered into the receiver.
At the hospital, the technicians gave her an EKG. As she waited for the results, her skin was tingling and her heart was beating too fast: a heart attack, she was sure. The doctor came and sat down with her. “That’s not it,” he said, looking into her face. “I know exactly what’s happening to you.” Elisa began to cry.
“Is your husband away?”
Hector had been gone for a month. It wasn’t the first time. There had been Kosovo and Korea, even a stint in Bosnia just after he and Elisa had conceived their third child. He was a bona fide infantryman, the kind of guy who would boast, “When the shit hits the fan, I want to be there.” Each time he was about to leave on a deployment, he’d walk around the house in a sudden bout of low-intensity panic, reminding Elisa to shut the doors whenever she went out, turn off the appliances, until she had to cut her husband off. “Hector,” she’d admonish him lightly, “how long have I been doing this?”
But this time things were different. In Hector’s ten years of active service, Iraq was his first war. He had sensed it was coming; the terrorists had killed thousands when the Twin Towers came down, and Hector fiercely agreed with his president when he said it was the nation’s obligation to preempt future attacks. “They hit us first. We have to hit back,” he’d tell Elisa, his adrenaline pumping already. But in the days before he left Fort Campbell, in Kentucky, for the Middle East, he had become unusually quiet, as if he were worried. And when Elisa came home after kissing him good-bye on February 28, she noticed the dreadful spaciousness of his absence for the first time. When he’d call home now, it was for five minutes. In his pictures from Iraq, his ribs poked through his T-shirt.
Staff Sergeant Hector R. Perez, age 40. Company A, 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry, 101st Airborne Division. Ray High School graduate. Father of three. Hater of pickles.
The doctor looked at Elisa and said, “What you’re experiencing is an anxiety attack.”
Maybe she’d just been watching the news too much. The television was religiously tuned to CNN, even overnight, a fact that was beginning to annoy her daughters. But Elisa needed to know everything, even if it raised her stress level. She knew when the soldiers began creeping into southern Iraq through Kuwait on March 20, knew when they marched into central Baghdad nearly three weeks later and toppled the cruel dictator’s statue. She knew when thousands of Muslims peacefully protested the U.S. occupation and when Iraq’s provisional government was sworn in. She rejoiced when they saved the girl, a petite young American private named Jessica Lynch, and had grieved when four young Marines became the first casualties of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the victims of a helicopter crash. After that the death toll began to rise like a flood: slow at first, and then fearfully fast. Some died as soldiers are expected to die, in an exchange of gunfire, a roadside bomb. Others perished in sadly simple ways: He died from pneumonia. He fell off a roof.
On the afternoon of July 24, Elisa was still a ball of nerves, but she didn’t know that the body count was up again, to 241. Around lunchtime she returned from taking fourteen-year-old Marla to the doctor to get her allergy shots. Every afternoon Elisa reported to her cashier’s job at the post exchange at Fort Campbell, and this day was no different, so she made mental plans to fix a quick sandwich and bolt out the door once she was home. But as she pulled up to the driveway, Marla noticed the men.
“Mom,” she said. “Look. Those two soldiers.”
They were parked in front of the other side of their duplex. Elisa’s heart began to pound again, and she burst into prayer. Oh, no, dear God. Oh, no, dear God. The two soldiers approached her tan Mazda as she drove up, and when she got out of the car and looked into their grim faces, her eyes filled with tears.
“Don’t,” she pleaded softly, shaking her head.
“Are you Mrs. Perez? We need to go inside.”
She had first spotted him through the smoke of a club called Cowboys. He was a surfer back then, and he stood there, with his slightly feathered chestnut-colored hair, in his carpenter pants and his surfer’s shirt. “Mmmm!” Elisa said to her friend Martha when they walked by him at the bar. Maybe he’d come by if she sent off the right vibes. She waited. Her frustration mounted. And then, at about one-thirty in the morning, just before it was time to go, he walked up and asked her to dance.
“I met a guy!” Elisa gushed to her mother when she got to their home on St. Charles Street, in the old section of Brownsville. She was 23 years old, and she had been moping after a recent breakup. The surfer had asked for her number. He was from Corpus Christi, he had said, but had moved to Brownsville to spend some time with his older sister, Rosa Anna, who was like a second mother to him, and to take classes at the local college. He had been serving in the National Guard since his high school graduation. As Elisa was going over all this in her head, the phone rang. She grabbed the receiver and shut herself inside a closet. “You’re not supposed to call me right now!” she scolded him in a hushed voice, smiling. The next day they took a drive to the beach and ate burgers together.
Hector was 22 years old. In high school he’d been the kind of guy who had to be around in order for things to happen. He made the varsity football team as a sophomore but was kicked off because he didn’t show up for practice. He drummed in the school band. When he was seventeen, he took a job at Whataburger, where he ate so many hamburgers he came to detest pickles, the reason his family nickname became Pickle. He believed in exercising and taking vitamins like a professional jock. Sometimes he’d throw on a backpack filled with canned goods and tell Rosa Anna, “Clock me, Sis!” and then dart off like a running back.
He was a charmer, and there were as many girls in his life at any given time as he wanted. But maybe he needed some discipline, and he soon found that structure and steadiness in Elisa. One day, after they had been together three years, Hector lied to Elisa and told her that he was about to get shipped off to Germany so that she would marry him. They were hitched without telling his family, by a justice of the peace. Martha stood in as a witness. A month later they married properly, in the church, and everyone was invited. It was the winter of 1987.
Six years later, Hector transferred to active duty in the Army. He made it sound like a sweet deal to Elisa: They would get free housing and lots of tax breaks. To Hector, the military represented steady work, and there was a part of him that wanted to be like his father, Esequiel Perez, a veteran of World War II. After six months of training, Hector received his assignment to Fort Sill. Elisa packed her bags for Oklahoma. It was the first time she had left her hometown.
The years between 1993 and 1999 saw a streak of bloody violence in the Balkans, and the United States sent troops to intervene in Bosnia and Kosovo. While stationed at Fort Sill, then Darmstadt, Germany, and finally Fort Campbell, Hector had been deployed to both places. But he was a mechanic who labored behind the front lines. When the chance came up in 1999, he decided that he wanted to join the infantry, like his father. His dad was uneasy. The Army was not the place to make a living, he argued. It guaranteed nothing—not good pay, not decent health care, not even life itself. “Just take a desk job. You’ve already done your job,” he advised his sixth child. “But, Dad,” Hector shot back, “you were there!” His father replied: “Well, good luck to you. I hope you do come back.”
There is a point in most soldiers’ lives when the military grows into its own cause and comes to feel even more sacred than family. Duty. Honor. Country. Never leave a fallen comrade. Never surrender. Hector had taken these values to heart, and he came to believe, indeed, that the responsibility of keeping the world free lay on his shoulders, especially once he became a father. First there was Marla Karina, then Elisa Renne, and finally Jacqueline Lilliann—he was serving for them, he would say, so that they could live free lives as he had, even though he earned just under $20,000 a year and trudged home with viciously blistered feet.
He was the kind of father who changed diapers, and in the eyes of his three girls, Hector was the fun one—and the one who could cook. He came up with nicknames for everyone: Peewee, Dweeby, and Silly; Elisa was Babe. In their family pictures, he is often doing something goofy, like in the snapshot he took with Lisa (the name little Elisa goes by) in which he is trying to look official as he pretends to present her with an award she received at school that day. When Marla’s friends came over to the house, he would blend Kool-Aid, sugar, and ice and treat them to “ghetto margaritas.” He always made sure his family observed “quality time,” which meant all five would somehow squeeze onto one bed and just lie there laughing at silly things. When he was away, Hector would ask Elisa to tape Lisa’s trombone playing, and he wrote letters to each of his daughters, including baby Lilli, whose notes from her father consisted of little hand-drawn camels and other things he’d seen on his trips. He particularly liked to tell them stories about how children lived in other parts of the world.
Though death is a subject that cannot be avoided in military families, it is still just a concept, a constant but somehow cloudy idea that governs the way life insurance forms and “family care plans” are filled out as spouses march off on assignments. Real expectations for what life might look like without a husband, a son, a mother are rarely considered. Hector liked to pontificate about giving up his life for freedom. “If a hundred have to die for ten thousand to live, so be it,” he’d insist. “And if I have to be one of those one hundred, so be it.” But in Elisa’s eyes he was invincible, indestructible, the one who would always manage to get out of a jam. Of this she was confident.
Sergeant Albert “Shaka” Waklatsi was not just Hector Perez’s superior. The two were best friends, sharing a bond that transcends a normal friendship, the kind that can only be formed by living through the worst possible experiences and emerging from them together. They had met at Fort Campbell, when Shaka, who was the equal-opportunity representative for his battalion, called on Hector to fill the same role at the company level. After they landed in Kuwait, on March 1, and then entered Iraq, they spent almost every waking hour together, sleeping next to each other, not taking meals if the other didn’t, and spending their few moments of peace talking about what mattered most to them—the people they had left behind. Both were the fathers of girls, and they drafted lists of qualifications their daughters’ future suitors would have to meet. No punks, they agreed; they’d better be gentlemen, first and foremost. Hector daydreamed about his wife. “I’ve been married for fifteen years, and I’m so comfortable,” he’d say to Shaka. “If anything were to happen to me today, I know she would take care of my children.” And then he’d flash his mischievous grin and tell his friend, who was a single father, “You need to go to Mexico. You need to meet a woman from Mexico and leave these American girls alone.”
Shaka believed that some people were born to be warriors, and he felt that he and “P,” as he called his friend, were walking testimonies to this. A native of Ghana, West Africa, who moved to South Carolina at the age of twelve, Shaka had served nine years in the Marines before joining the Army, and he had seen the world. He and Hector, who was nine years older, bonded over family and cultural values but especially over the opinions they shared about the role of a soldier and the duties it required. They would talk about these things as if they were gospel, convinced that any sacrifice, even one’s life, was worth the greater good. But then neither of them had ever been in a real war.
As their time in Iraq progressed, their platoon felt almost divinely protected. Everything Shaka’s and Hector’s soldiers were charged with was executed without a hitch. They fought with their own hands, going from building to building in Najaf and either capturing the enemy or destroying him with their weapons. In the mocking desert heat they crept from town to town, village to village. April bled into May, and on May 1, when President George W. Bush triumphantly boarded the USS Abraham Lincoln and declared an end to major combat operations, their work included more constructive and humanitarian missions; they trained Iraqi police and helped set up hospitals, schools, and water lines. Hector was enamored with the children of the Middle East. In the photographs he took, there are crumbling concrete compounds and vast expanses of sandy nothingness, but mostly there are kids: swarms of them, beautiful bronze children with bold noses, making faces and flashing thumbs-ups at the camera. There are pictures in which shy little girls peek out of distant doors. Hector had a weakness for girls. He’d save candy for them from the care packages his family sent him. “P, no more freakin’, stinkin’ candies!” Shaka would growl, as the children would mob around them. “We gotta get these kids away from us. They’re driving me nuts!” But Hector would smile that lopsided smile of his as he continued doling out the sweets. “One more, man, one more!” he’d say.
On the evening of July 24, two days after the sons of Saddam Hussein, Qusay and Uday, were gunned down by U.S. forces following a fierce battle, Shaka returned from a meeting with his superiors and took a nap. When he awoke a few hours later, he saw Hector dressing hurriedly next to him. “We got an order. They told us to go down this road and head south, then west, then north,” he said, issuing a tangle of directions. “That sounds like reconnaissance,” Shaka replied. He jumped from his cot and readied himself. Their nine-man squad formed a convoy, with Hector riding on the passenger side of the first Humvee and Shaka folding into the back seat of the third.
As they began the mission somewhere outside Mosul, out of nowhere, Shaka heard an earsplitting boom. There was a flame, and then the first vehicle in the convoy went barreling off the road. It was a rocket-propelled grenade, soon followed by small-arms fire, falling like a diagonal sheet of rain from the top of a hill that rose beside the road. The Americans shot back as they watched the first Humvee skid until it stopped about two hundred meters off the road. The second vehicle raced up to it. Sergeant Evan Asa Ashcraft, age twenty-four, was dead, slumped over the steering wheel. Twenty-two-year-old Private, First Class, Raheen Tyson Heighter was injured. Hector Perez was missing.
“Where’s P?! Where’s P?!” Shaka shouted frantically as he ran to the vehicle.
His men responded, “We can’t find Perez.”
“We gotta find him!” Shaka barked. He ordered them to put Ashcraft’s body in the back seat of the second Humvee. Heighter was rushed to an Army first aid station, where he was picked up by a helicopter.
Shaka began backtracking down the route the truck had followed, screaming now: “P! P!” But it was pitch-black, and Hector was not responding. At one point, nearly sixty troops combed the area where he might have landed.
And then one of them called out: “Shaka, we found P!”
Shaka came running to the side of the road where the soldier was standing. But the soldier stopped him. “Shaka,” he said, “he didn’t make it.” Hector’s body was in a ditch that ran under the road at the spot where his Humvee had been hit. His left arm was nearly severed, and his upper chest was badly damaged. Another soldier picked up Hector and placed him in the back of the truck.
Shaka’s commander asked him to wait until his superior came to assess the damage, but Shaka was livid; with his commander’s consent, he jumped in the Humvee and drove off with his friend. At the base camp the Army had set up north of Hawd, the soldiers and doctors came up to examine Hector’s body, but Shaka would not let them touch his comrade.
“Shaka,” they said to him softly. “He’s dead.”
“I don’t care.”
He sat that way for several hours, seething in silence. Finally, the medical team talked him down, and he let them take the stretcher inside. Shaka then rounded up his troops and led them back to the village near where the attack had occurred. He was powered by a feeling he had never known. They went house-to-house, pounding on doors, well over a hundred of them. “Nobody’s stopping!” Shaka ordered. “We’re gonna find out what happened. If you find anybody who can speak the least bit of English, we’re gonna get information!”
But the Iraqis had nothing to say. The sun rose, and it was late afternoon by the time Shaka’s hopes faded and the weary troops made their way back to the camp, without answers.
Everyone knew about the bond Shaka and Hector had shared, so when Shaka walked into the camp and said, defeated, “I’m taking my boys home,” nobody challenged him. He and another squad leader made the thirty-minute flight to Mosul, then to Kuwait and Germany. Finally, they boarded a commercial plane bound for Dover Air Force Base, in Delaware, the place of fallen soldiers. As the plane pierced the sky, Shaka stared at his bloodied boots.
The girls were screaming. Marla bolted out the front door. Thirteen-year-old Lisa followed. Upstairs, Lilli, in her five-year-old’s voice, was crying, “My daddy! My daddy!” Their well-ordered home tumbled into a mess of grief. Elisa stood in the kitchen, clutching the lieutenant who had informed her of Hector’s ambush. A friend of one of her daughter’s who had been present when the soldiers arrived had dashed out of the house and told her mother, and now the woman barged in, wailing as if her own family had received the news: “Oh, Mrs. Perez! Oh, Mrs. Perez!” Choking on her tears, Elisa asked when Hector would be coming home. The officer said he thought it would take five to seven days. It was Thursday. Elisa made a mental calculation and then called Hector’s family in Corpus Christi and her mother in Brownsville.
In contrast to the shock and pain that a mourning family experiences when a soldier dies, the task of transporting those who are killed on military duty is surprisingly mundane and impersonal. Following a quiet salute by the honor guards who prepare the flag-draped metal boxes that hold the soldiers, all of the bodies are flown to Dover, as they have been since 1955. From there, military ethic dictates that a fallen soldier’s final destination should always be guided by his next-of-kin’s wishes. But once a site is chosen, there is no Abraham Lincoln or Air Force One to carry the soldier back home. Instead, the bodies fly in the cargo hold of a commercial plane beneath unsuspecting passengers, whose minds are most likely busied by matters far from the war.
The day after Hector was killed, an Army casualty assistance officer arrived at the Perez home to make the final preparations. Elisa had not stopped crying since Thursday afternoon, and through the haze that dulled her mind she was forced to make a number of highly specific decisions: What kind of casket would Hector get? Would there be military honors? Where would he be laid to rest? She thought of Corpus Christi, his hometown, but she had already made up her mind to move back with her family to Brownsville, and she couldn’t bear the thought of 160 miles of scrubland separating her from her husband. At the same time, his father and siblings and high school friends in Corpus Christi would want to pay their respects. “Can he be flown to Corpus first and then be taken to Brownsville?” she asked the officer. “Let me find out,” he replied, “but I’m sure it can be taken care of.”
But Saturday came and went, and then Sunday; the Army was silent. Elisa had no idea where Hector was or if he had even arrived in Dover yet. In her deepest despair, she suddenly found herself wading through layers of government bureaucracy. On Monday, an Army representative finally called, but his message only confused the matter. Hector’s remains would be taken only to Brownsville. However, the closest the Army said they could land with the required aircraft was in McAllen. Ron Alonzo, the funeral home owner who would be handling Hector’s arrangements in Corpus Christi, called the responsible mortuary affairs officer to find out why they couldn’t grant the family’s wishes. But the officer said that he was simply responding to Elisa’s request. Hector’s sister Rosa Anna then tried to settle the problem with a different Army representative, but she was told that the Army could pay for only one funeral service and couldn’t “ship him to two places.” “Excuse me?” she said, furious that the return home of a man who had compromised his and his family’s future ultimately boiled down to just another government procedure. “Ship him? He’s not a bundle. He was a human being!”
Feeling increasingly helpless, on Tuesday the Perez family triggered a flurry of phone calls to politicians for assistance: state senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, U.S. senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, U.S. representative Solomon Ortiz. The next day, Hector had acquired a face; his story was in the pages of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. It would also make the San Antonio Express-News. “As a Vietnam veteran and former combat medic,” American G.I. Forum state commander Ram Chavez told the press, “I know for a fact that this family’s wishes are not being fulfilled.”
But the publicity only inflamed the Army officers who were dealing with the family. The ordeal was now being played out in the press, where stories about dead soldiers have political consequences and images carry symbolic power. Since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, when the Bush administration reissued a 1991 ban on the publishing of photographs of coffins or funerals of American soldiers in order “to protect the wishes and the privacy of the families during their time of greatest loss and grief,” the issue of covering war casualties has touched off a political firestorm. War opponents insist that the ban shields the public from the human cost of military intervention. War supporters accuse these individuals of wanting to undermine the Pentagon’s efforts and President Bush in time for the election. The officers charged with handling Hector feared that his family was turning his transport into a similar political football. But the battles over image and sensibility meant nothing to Elisa. All she wanted was for Hector’s body to be brought home as quickly as possible, to the places she had requested.
Finally, Alonzo convened a meeting with Rosa Anna, and she placed a phone call to Elisa, who had already flown from Kentucky to Brownsville. The political route was not going well, he told them. He pleaded with the two women to let him try another strategy. He phoned the mortuary desk of Continental Airlines and asked if there was still space aboard flight 277 from Philadelphia to Houston that evening. Then he called a mortuary affairs officer at Dover Air Force Base and informed him that if he could get Hector’s body to Philadelphia for the five-thirty flight, Alonzo would send his driver to the airport in Houston to receive him and shoulder the cost himself. The lieutenant grumbled—this gave him just over an hour to make the necessary arrangements, he said—but he agreed to try.
That night, at 7:55 in Houston, a gray metal casket encased in a white corrugated shipping tray was taken off of the Continental Airlines plane at George Bush Intercontinental Airport, processed, and slipped onto a hearse. From there, Hector Perez, the 239th fatality of Operation Iraqi Freedom, was driven by a civilian to Corpus Christi. Sometime after midnight on Thursday, July 31—a whole week after her husband had died—Elisa got the phone call that Hector was home and ready to be with her.
In Brownsville last December, Elisa and Rosa Anna were still dressed in the dark colors of mourning. Rosa Anna was limping from recent foot surgery and Elisa, with her strong cheekbones and carefully styled hair, wore her husband’s gold wedding band on a chain around her neck. Over several cups of coffee, they shared silly memories of Hector: Hector who could sweet-talk his way out of anything; Hector who would march around his father’s home with all of his nephews following him like little soldiers. Rosa Anna pulled out her cell phone to show how she still had his number saved under his nickname.
But five months after Hector’s death, Elisa and Rosa Anna both carried the sour aftertaste of their experience with the Army. Although they supported the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq, they also wondered whether the military had been prepared for the high number of bodies it was going to have to bring back home. Elisa was surprised that despite all the paperwork she and Hector had filled out before his deployments, the Army had asked that she make so many decisions upon his death, when she did not feel emotionally capable. Rosa Anna bristled at the fact that the government’s resistance to flying Hector’s body to both Corpus Christi and Brownsville was an issue of money. Eventually the subject turned to Jessica Lynch, whose homecoming had seemed so celebrated in contrast to Hector’s return. “I’m very, very happy that Miss Lynch came back alive,” Rosa Anna said, “because I wouldn’t wish what we went through on anybody. But there’s a better way to do things—not for us, because what happened to us already happened—but for everyone else. Those are the last little things that we’re doing for our soldiers.”
Maybe the fifth month is just the most difficult stage of the grieving process, because among those who were closest to Hector Perez, an echo of disillusionment prevailed. When I visited with Hector’s siblings and father in Corpus Christi, his sister Sandra Vasquez questioned the purpose of the war and mocked the extra money her brother received in Iraq as “hazardous duty incentive pay.” “Their life is at stake every single minute,” she said, sitting with the others under a carport that was draped with plastic American flags. “For five dollars a day? It’s not worth it at all.” Her father, wheelchair-bound at 77 years of age, peered through his large bifocals and listened to the debate. Last July he received the news of his son’s death just two days after his birthday. And when Hector’s body was driven to Brownsville following the services in Corpus Christi, the local congressman had to foot the bill for a handicap bus for him to ride in, because the military would not exceed its budget. “When you have a family member, you want the best for them, and the military’s not the best,” he said in his raspy voice. “The infantry is on the front line. They should be paid more than the ones pushing a pencil in the back. They should have a little more respect.”
A few days later, I spoke with Shaka by phone. He was stationed at Fort Benning, in Georgia, and had spent several months home from Iraq training to be a drill sergeant. He wasn’t sure if he’d have to go back, but it seemed as though witnessing his friend’s death had changed his views on fighting for good. He told me that he was just going to put in his twenty years of military service and retire as soon as he was eligible. “One man’s life affected four,” he said. “Those girls will forever grow without a dad. Somebody tell me the true reason why we’re fighting. At some point you start questioning, Was it even worth it? Do people really understand what we’re going through for this so-called war? How many politicians have their kids out there?”
He recalled the way he had been transformed last July: “Once you realize a person’s not coming back, everything about you changes. It’s not about a cause anymore. It’s about you. It’s about everyone around you. War is ugly, for the bad guys and for us. I don’t even think the politicians grasp the concept of battle. I don’t think they considered every last means known to mankind before going to war.” Then, maybe remembering the feeling he’d shared with Hector of duty to his country, he softened up. “We’re not doing it for the money, because all we’re getting is a bunch of pennies,” he said. “We are born and bred to be warriors, and every warrior searches for a good death. But maybe this is not the war in which we should find that death.”
Hector, fitted handsomely in his Army uniform, was grinning at Elisa from the dashboard of her white Villager minivan, his light-brown eyes almost sparkling through the photo paper. It was April, and Elisa and Lilli, a coquettish six-year-old with eyes like almonds, were on their way to pick up Lisa and Marla from school. Now that the girls were living in Brownsville, getting used to their father’s absence was only one of the adjustments they were having to make. They were also settling into a new city, making new friends, and growing up—all at the same time.
Elisa was talking about her continued anxiety attacks, the ongoing depression that makes her break down unpredictably. “They tell me, ‘You’re so strong. You’re so strong,’” she said, “but inside I’m all messed up.” She wondered about the toll this was taking on her daughters and recalled the day when the four of them were preparing to go for a drive and the girls were bickering over who was going to ride shotgun. Lisa accidentally smashed little Lilli’s hand with the sliding door, and in an inexplicable fit of frustration, Elisa struck her daughter and then plopped down on the ground and began to cry. Lisa uttered a sarcastic remark that cut like paper: “There she goes again. She needs to be put on medication.”
We pulled into Cummings Middle School, a low-slung brick building in the center of Brownsville. Lisa, who would be turning fourteen soon, rose from a cement bench and strode over to the car in tight capri jeans and a red T-shirt, her pink skin and glittery eye shadow giving her a sweet, gorgeous look. She is a female incarnation of her dad, tall and athletic, and she is at that age when girls suddenly turn beautiful. But even this makes her mom a little sad: Elisa wishes Hector could see them now. She knows exactly what he would say.
I asked Elisa if she was receiving any benefits or support from the government. She said that she and the girls will get three years of medical insurance and that they receive a monthly $1,600 check from the Department of Veterans Affairs. The four of them were still living with Elisa’s mother, but with the one-time $250,000 life insurance check she had received, Elisa had paid off some bills and was building a four-bedroom house in Brownsville. Every now and then a former friend of Hector’s or a military wife will call her, to see how she’s doing. But Elisa knows that from now on, she’s mostly alone. She’ll have to find a paying job someday if she wants to live comfortably. These days, she spends her time volunteering at Lilli’s elementary school, where her sister Erendira is the parent liaison, and the two spend the day cracking jokes as they work together.
Fifteen-year-old Marla was waiting for us at Porter High School. Candid and good-natured, she was dressed in jeans and a T-shirt and decorated in charm bracelets and a plastic choker. If Lisa likes sports and makeup, Marla prefers sketching intricate drawings and painting her fingernails with black polish. Her mother said she’s still processing her father’s death; one day Marla said she hated the Army, but another day she asked the school’s recruiter what it would take to join Junior ROTC. It was also Marla who declared to her mother recently that she and Lisa didn’t want to attend any more military ceremonies or memorials, because all Elisa did was cry, and this made them hurt.
We arrived at Elisa’s mother’s house and settled into some couches in the living room. That afternoon marked the third week of April—the deadliest month since the invasion of Iraq, with 137 lives lost. Throughout the country, dozens of families were just beginning the process that Elisa knew all too well. She was beginning to realize how difficult it might be for her family to heal. Every day, there was another dead soldier on the news, another reminder that the pain doesn’t stop when a president declares an end to war. “What if it doesn’t go away?” Elisa worried out loud. “Here I am, messed up for life.” While just a few months ago she had staunchly supported the government’s intervention in Iraq, now she wondered if it was carried out for the wrong reasons. “It feels like the ultimate betrayal from our president, because Hector went out there thinking he was fighting for freedom,” she said. “It’s become a senseless war. We’re losing more soldiers all the time. And you can’t just be playing with lives. Not only did you take his life, but look at me—I’m on medication. And then it gets passed on to the kids because I’m not all there.”
The girls, who had been chatty and engaging in the car, had little to say now. Marla told me that she had written a letter to CosmoGirl describing the way that her dad’s death had changed her life, and Lilli remembered the way he used to wake her up every morning when he was home. But mostly they were tired of the subject. Elisa tried to stay upbeat. She talked about the new house, told me about the way she was going to hang Hector’s clothes in her closet as if he were still alive, and how she would place his beloved stereo in the living room, as he would have done. With any death, in every grieving process, there is a point of resignation and acceptance. But Elisa isn’t ready yet. For a little longer, she is going to imagine that Hector is overseas again. And that one day he’ll walk back through the door, and the five of them will crowd onto one bed and laugh at silly things, and it will be like it always was.