On November 16, 2010, I was on top of the world and at the lowest of lows all in the same day. On November 17, 2010 I was in a car with Javier’s brother, Orlando, and Marine Casualty Assistance Officer, on my way to Dover, Delaware to receive my husband’s body…or a dignified transfer, as the Department of Defense calls it. It felt surreal. I asked myself, “Is this real life? Is this a true story?” The captain was driving. I remember feeling exhausted and thinking to myself, “I’m in the car with a complete stranger. What the hell am I doing? Why did I trust him enough to get in the car with him? This dude, has been bad news since I laid eyes on him!” For some reason, that made me wanna laugh out loud, but I didn’t. Instead, I smiled to myself.
To be honest, I wasn’t sure if smiling was appropriate, given the circumstances. I felt guilty for smiling. I wasn’t sure what acceptable behavior was, but I did know I was exhausted from crying. It had only been 24 hours since receiving the news and already I was tired of feeling sad. I wanted a break from this cloud of sadness that was consuming me alive. I thought to myself, “Am I supposed to cry non-stop? Is laughing allowed? Should I be wearing black? Maybe I should wear a black veil over my face.” I had so many thoughts going through my head. I wanted to ask the captain, “Hey, how did it feel when you broke my heart and ruined my life?” but I knew that would absolutely be inappropriate. I wanted to ask him a lot of questions. (For anyone who knows me, you know I love to ask questions) I stopped myself because I was still mad at him and blamed him. I didn’t want him thinking we were “homies”. So many thoughts ran through my mind, I don’t know how they all fit. I was tired of thinking, I was tired of being sad, I was tired of the ache in my heart, I was exhausted with everything. I didn’t want to think about anything, I didn’t want to feel anything anymore. I still hadn’t had anything to eat and I hadn’t been able to sleep. I was mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted.
Meanwhile, the captain and Orlando had started a conversation with eachother. Truth be told, I was annoyed. I wanted to turn around and tell Orlando, “Don’t talk to him. He’s not cool. He broke my heart and now he’s bringing us to Dover to endure more heartache..you included!” I was in a very bad mood. I was hating life. Going through airport security, Orlando told us how amazing the airport security screening was in Rochester because it detected chapstick in his pocket. I thought to myself, “Who cares! Please stop talking!” All of this was taking it’s toll on me. I told myself not to take out my frustrations on the only two people who I had to rely on at the moment. I wasn’t doing good. I felt like total crap and extremely weak. I wanted to break down and tell these two men how scared I was, how weak I felt, and how I didn’t think I could do this, but I was too proud to tell either one of them anything. I just held it in and did my best to fake it.
We landed in Philadelphia. Then, we got a rental car and drove to Dover. I was more annoyed than I had ever been in my entire life. I just wanted to take a shower, take some sleeping pills, and get some rest. When we arrived at the hotel, we checked into our rooms and the captain told us we had to meet with a chaplain so he could explain the dignified transfer to us. I was exhausted and I couldn’t believe they wanted to meet with us so late. Couldn’t they see how bad I was doing? Was it not written all over my face? Did they not understand how weak and scared I was? This was too much for me! However, I didn’t say anything. I held it in. We met with a marine and the chaplain. They explained, in detail, the dignified transfer. They talked about it as if it was an every day thing, as though it was routine. I was in shock. How in the world could they be so non-chalant about my husband’s death? I was angry.
When I got back to the hotel room, I got in the shower and thought about what the next day would be like. I asked myself what I should wear. Should I fix my hair? Should I put make up on? I decided I should. I laid down and for the first time, it hit me…Javier was not coming home the way we had planned. I would not be able to run up to him and kiss him. I wouldn’t be able to bring him home with me. I wouldn’t be able to touch him. Reality was bitch slapping me, yet again! Since receiving the news of Javi’s death, I had cried, I had yelled, I had sobbed, but this time, I laid in the bed and wept. I wept, and wept, and wept. I could never put into words how much my heart hurt. You see, as a Marine wife, you endure deployments because although your husband is gone, every day is filled with hope. You have hope that he will call you, hope that you will receive a letter or an email, hope that you will see him through Skype, most importantly, every day that goes by fills you with hope because it is one day closer to being in your husband’s arms again. That hope is what gives you the strength to endure the long months of being without your marine. My hope was gone. I was robbed of it. My husband’s deployment was cut short…no, his life was cut short. There are not enough words in the English language to explain or describe how that feels. Pain and anger filled my heart. I hated everything and everyone. I was jealous of every marine wife who still had a living husband. I was envious of every wife who would be going to sleep next to their husband, while I lay in bed crying uncontrollably for mine. I was envious of every wife who would wake up to their husband, while mine died protecting their freedom. I was jealous of every wife who still had the hope and expectation of planning for their marine’s return, while mine returned to be in a flag draped coffin. I was angry with arab people. I was angry with America. I was angry about the war. I was furious with God. I thought about praying, but I was too angry to pray. Instead, I cried myself to sleep.
When morning came, I heard the alarm, but I had no desire to get out of bed. Actually, I didn’t have the strength to get out of bed. Surprisingly, I felt convicted about the anger that I was fueling in my heart. I told myself that I couldn’t be jealous or angry. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. I didn’t want anger in my heart. I decided to pray. I asked God for fogiveness and asked him to please take the anger out of my heart. Anger is an ugly, ugly thing, and I had no room in my heart for it. I had enough feelings to deal with. I didn’t want anger to be one of them. I was still drained and exhausted. I also pleaded with God to give me something that would force me out of bed. Well, God definitely heard my prayer because I started to gag and I shot out of bed and ran to the bathroom to throw up. I threw up several times. My nerves were getting the best of me. I forced myself to get it together. I washed my mouth and began getting ready.
I wanted to wear the blue shirt and black pencil skirt with heels that Javi loved to see me in, but I didn’t feel well. Walking around in heels didn’t seem realistic or possible. Instead, I wore a Dallas Cowboys shirt, jeans, and some sneakers. I fixed my hair. I put my makeup on. I hoped that Javi would approve. I went downstairs to the hotel lobby to eat breakfast.
When I walked into the lobby, the captain was waiting. He was wearing dress blues. For the first time since I’d met him, I saw him as a marine, on duty, assigned to help me through this, instead of someone who ruined my life. In that moment, I appreciated his patience with me. I was grateful for his calm and caring demeanor. I wanted to hug him and tell him how sorry I was for all the horrible things I’d said about him in my own head. Something about seeing him in his dress blues made me realize that this was not any fun for him either. It hurt him to have to be the one to hurt me. It hurt him to see me and Orlando in so much pain. As we sat down to eat breakfast, I silently prayed to God and asked him to give this captain emotional and mental strength. He was enduring this with us, he was not immune to the heartache. He didn’t choose this. He didn’t ruin my life. He was simply forced to be the bearer of bad news and now he was helping me in whatever way he could. None of this was his fault. God was beginning to take the anger out of my heart.
We finished breakfast and the captain drove Orlando and I to Dover Air Force Base. We were greeted by Air Force personnel. The marine and chaplain we met the night before were there as well. I was nervous. I was scared. I felt more alone than I had ever felt in my entire life. I wanted my husband. I wanted to tell him how scared I was, and I wanted him to calm my fears. Javier was the only person who could make me feel safe when I was scared. He was now dead. He couldn’t help me be strong. Every time I told myself it couldn’t get worse than the day before, it did. I was so scared, nervous, heart broken, and as much as I tried to be strong I couldn’t. I began falling apart. I turned into a scared little girl looking for someone to fix everything for her. Orlando came and sat beside me. He told me I wasn’t alone and that he would help me get through it. I had no choice but to let him. He was the only family there.
They took us into a white room with a big conference table. The captain, a marine, and the chaplain sat across from Orlando and I. An old, ugly, mortician sat at the head of the table. He was insensitive and spoke about death very matter of factly. He wasn’t phased by the gruesome details. He had absolutely no compassion in his voice. He spoke to me as if all of this was completely normal. He explained that my husband was probably not in any condition to be viewed. He said there were three categories, viewable, indentifiable, and full body wrap. These were new terms for me. I asked about each of them. He told me viewable would be open casket, identifiable meant that the body could be recognized, but the casket could only be opened so that the family could identify it, and full body wrap meant that the body had suffered extensive damage and couldn’t be viewed or identified and would need to be wrapped in gauze completely, like a mummy. He then proceeded to tell me, “Your husband will probably be full body wrap.” I began to sob. I turned to Orlando to see his reaction. His eyes were filling with tears as well. He squeezed my hand as though to say, “Stay strong. We can do this.” The mortician was heartless. He didn’t stop. He began explaining to me that my husband’s body may come back in pieces. He wanted me to decide what should be done with any remains that were received after he was burried. I again, began to sob. I looked at Orlando and said, “I don’t know. I don’t know. I can’t do this.” He looked at me and said, “Veronica, yes you can.” The mortician proceeded without giving me enough time to calm down from the first two blows. He pulled out a pictures of caskets and asked which one I would like. That is when I lost it. I began to cry very loudly. I turned and looked at Orlando. This was too much for me. He was teary eyed. I was crying uncontrollably. I couldn’t believe that I was about to pick out a casket for my love. I remember lowering my head and looking at the floor. I couldn’t look at those caskets. The mortician proceeded to provide me with details and facts about the difference between the two caskets. I was extremely frustrated with him. I yelled, “I don’t know. I don’t know what to pick. I can’t pick.” I turned and looked at Orlando, my eyes pleaded with him to help me. He took a deep breath and in a broken voice said, “Go with this one.” He picked the silver casket. I felt like I had been stabbed in the heart. I wanted Orlando to finish this for me. Just as I was about to tell Orlando that I had had enough, that I couldn’t take another second of this, to please finish for me, I was informed I had to be the one to make the decisions because I was Javier’s next of kin. Javier had chosen me to make these decisions, and my signature was required. I felt trapped in a room that I just wanted to escape from. I felt helpless, defeated, and completely overwhelmed. The mortician kept on. He proceeded to ask me if I wanted a private charter plane for my husband to be flown in, or if I wanted him to go on a commercial plane and be checked as cargo. “Be checked as cargo?” Was he serious? My hands began to shake. I wanted to punch him. No, I didn’t want my husband on a commercial plane traveling as cargo! Again, I cried as I signed the paperwork for a private charter plane. Next, he informed me that my husband would be assigned a marine escort. A random marine who didn’t know him? Absolutely not! I told him I had someone in mind. The mortician tried to discourage me, he tried to be difficult. I had had enough of him. I didn’t care what he said. No random stranger would escort my husband’s body. I called Javier’s friend, Benji. He was stationed in Hawaii. He had gotten on the first plane out of Hawaii as soon as he got the news of Javi’s death. He was on standby, waiting for funeral details. Javier had called him the day before he died. Benji and I were the last two people he had spoken to. It was only fitting that Benji should be his escort. Benji agreed. I looked at the mortician with defiance and gave him Benji’s information. If looks could kill, that mortician’s funeral would have been the next one planned. He then began to discuss funeral costs and such. I thought to myself, “Really, seriously?! I am being bombarded with information. I’ve had to make the hardest decisions of my life, all right before I receive my husbands body! What is wrong with these people? Why are they so stupid? How could they be so heartless?” I signed more paperwork and finally, they told me we were finished. I was emotionally drained, but there was no time to catch my breath. Someone came in and informed us that the C-17 that was carrying my husband’s body was about to land. It was time for us to go out to the tarmack.
I got up from the chair I was sitting in, but I could barely walk. On my way out of the room, the chaplain stopped me and hugged me. I was crying. I looked up at him, looked him in the eyes and simply said, “Please, please…” I couldn’t finish that sentence. I wasn’t sure what I was pleading for. His eyes were red and filled with tears. On our way to the bus that would take us to the tarmack, I stopped. Orlando wasn’t sure what was wrong. I wouldn’t move. I began to sob. He tried to calm me down. I told him, “I don’t even have a welcome home sign for him! I don’t have a sign. I was supposed to have a welcome home sign. I don’t have one!” Despite Orlando’s best efforts to calm me down, I was throwing an all out fit and I didn’t care what anyone said or thought. Someone handed Orlando a piece of paper and a black marker. He gave it to me and said, “It’s ok. It’s ok. You can make him one.” I stopped crying and wrote on the piece of paper, “Welcome Home. We love you!” Now I was ready to get on that bus.
It was a short bus ride. When it stopped everyone got up. I couldn’t get myself to stand up. I grabbed Orlando’s hand and said, “Please pray with me.” I never, ever pray outloud or in front of anyone. My prayers are always silent and in private. That day, I prayed outloud. I asked God to to help us, give us strength and comfort our hearts. We stepped off the bus and when I looked up, I saw a box. It wasn’t a casket. It was a silver transfer case, with an American flag draped neatly over it. Javier was inside.
I fought the urge to scream. I fought the urge to run to him. I fought the urge to act a fool. This was by far much harder than receiving the news of his death. This made it real. I was having a hard time standing up on my own. I was having a hard time maintaing my composure. The chaplain told Orlando he would need to restrain me to ensure that I didn’t try and dart toward the transfer case as it passed in front of me. Orlando asked if I was ok. I didn’t answer. My eyes were focused on the transfer case. Before I knew it, he had a firm hold on me and there were three other men ready to help him in case I tried to make a run for it. The dignified transfer was beginning.
The flight crew was surrounding Javier’s transfer case. They prayed. Then a group of seven marines began marching toward the C-17. They were marching in pairs. The seventh marine was behind them quietly calling commands. They approached the transfer case and began to lift it. They began to walk with the case and bring it off of the C-17. They walked right by us. They were no more than 10 feet away. I was amazed. I stopped crying. I heard Orlando say to me, “You’re doing so good. I’m proud of you.” but I didn’t hear Orlando’s voice. I heard Javi’s voice. God let me hear what I needed to hear, the way I needed to hear it, and in the voice that I need to hear it in. I thought to myself, “My husband is with me right now. He is watching. He is speaking to me through his brother.” A calmness came over me, that I can’t even describe.
I told myself to take this moment in, to open my eyes, to see everything, and remember it. I wiped my tears and watched the marines salute Javier. All the military personnel that was present saluted him. Wow. He was being saluted! He was a hero. I watched them load my husband’s body into the mortuary van. Everyone saluted the van as it drove off. That is when pride set in. Javier had always been a hero in my eyes. I knew the hard work, long hours, and more importantly how he put his heart and soul into serving our country. I had always known it, but now America knew it. My husband had made the ultimate sacrifice for our country, for our freedom. He gave some AND he gave all. On September 3, 2010, he left to Afghanistan as SSgt. Javier Ortiz Rivera, U.S. Marine. On November 18th, he returned to American soil, as SSgt. Javier Ortiz Rivera, American hero. My heart was filled with pride.
I left Dover Air Force Base feeling a renewed strength. The pride that I felt for my husband gave me the push that I needed to keep going. I had a new realization in how much of a hero Javier truly was. I decided that I would pour all of my energy into making sure that he was honored as such. God, yet again, not only heard my prayers, but the prayers of many, many people around the country as well. In the midst of this tragedy, God was showing Himself to me. He was giving me what I needed to keep going, He was speaking to me through others, and He was showing Himself real and good, and not a moment too soon…I still had a memorial, a funeral, and a burial ahead of me…