My husband was killed in Afghanistan November 16, 2010. Somehow, God had given me the strength to survive the knock on the door, the arrival of my husbands body at Dover, Delaware, a memorial service in Jacksonville, NC, and a funeral service in Rochester, NY. It was now December 1, 2010 and we had just arrived in Arlington, VA for my husband’s burial, the next day. He wanted to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Although I wasn’t exactly thrilled at the idea of burying him in a place where I don’t live, I knew I had no choice but to honor his wishes. He told me his final wishes and then he chose me to see to it that they were carried out. He trusted me. I had no choice but to put my desires aside and honor him with the trust he put in me. However, it killed me to think that we would bury him and leave him there. I forced myself to push those thoughts out of my mind. He chose Arlington. That was that.
The following morning we would bury Javier. Many friends and family would be traveling from all parts of the country and as far as Japan to bid Javier a final farewell. While I appreciated the fact that so many people took the time off from work and spent the money to travel to Arlington for the burial, there was an anger rising up within me. Everyone would leave the comfort of their home and their lives for one day. They would come watch as Javier would be honored and buried and then they would get in their cars or on a plane and return to their lives. They would return to their husbands or their wives, return to their their children, their jobs and their homes…their lives. While everyone’s life was interrupted for a few days, mine was interrupted forever. My kid’s lives were interrupted forever. Anguish, heartache, anger, and fear began to set in more than ever.
I was an emotional mess pretending to be doing ok, under the circumstances. I was mentally and physically exhausted. Fourteen sleepless nights, countless tears, and millions of thoughts were beginning to be too much. We arrived at the hotel and I slept the day away. When I woke up, Javier’s family had arrived from New York. Seeing them made me feel a little better. Although they were a family in mourning and every one of them felt pain, anguish, and sorrow, they chose to allow themselves every opportunity to laugh. That helped me. It was comforting to know that laughing didn’t mean my heart wasn’t broken, it simply meant that I chose to rise above the sadness every moment I could.
We all went to dinner that evening. I smiled when needed and did my best to laugh when someone said something funny. Physically, I was at Ruby Tuesday’s eating dinner with the family, but my mind was somewhere else. It was consumed with thoughts of the next day. I also thought about how, for many, this would be the final step in Javi’s death, but for me, this would just be the beginning. I would be forced to go back to Camp Lejeune and face life without Javi. The anger and the fear set in again. I forced myself to push those thoughts aside for the sake of my kids. I remember looking at them as they ate. They were smiling. They were happy to be with family. My poor children. They had no idea how much heartache was in store for them. They had no idea how hard life was about to get. They couldn’t even begin to fathom the finality of death or the true concept of heaven. I attempted to finish my food, but couldn’t. It was too hard to eat with such a big knot in my throat.
We returned to the hotel. I sat on the bed and fought the urge to scream and throw things. The pain and anger were getting the best of me. I was extremely frustrated. I was completely consumed with heartache and sorrow. I wanted to tell everyone how much I hated everything that was happening. For the first time since Javier had been killed, I could no longer smile. I had no strength to smile anymore. I was defeated. I called my pastor, Pastor Ron. They were staying in the same hotel and I needed him to pray for me because I was on the verge of a complete breakdown.
I went up and met Pastor Ron and Pastor Pam in their room. I sat on the bed and sobbed. I told them how angry I was about a lot of things. I told them I didn’t understand how God could allow this to happen. I looked at Pastor Ron, and told him, “My faith was stronger than ever. I was trying to do everything right. I don’t understand why! Im so mad!” Pastor Ron looked at me and for the very first time I saw him on the verge of tears. In that moment, he stopped speaking to me as my pastor, and spoke to me as a loving father. His voice was calm, as he said, “Darling, I am so sorry this happened. This was not God’s will. We live in a fallen world and therefore bad things happen to good people. We don’t understand why this happened. There are questions I don’t have answers to. It’s like a big puzzle piece, in time, certain pieces will start coming together, but God holds the final puzzle piece. God knows you’re angry. He understands your anger. Darling, you are His child and it hurts him to see you in so much pain. He hurts with you.” The thought of God hurting with me and for me was something that had not crossed my mind. I needed to hear that. It gave me a sense of comfort. I listened to every word Pastor Ron and Pastor Pam said and did my best to receive every word with an open heart. They prayed with me. When I left their room I was still hurting and very afraid of what the next day had in store for me, but talking to them did me a world of good and kept me from having a nervous breakdown.
When I got back to my room, I laid down and thought about the next day. My heart was heavy, and although the talk with Pastor Ron helped, it didn’t fully make the anguish, the anger, or the fear go away. I remember praying, “God, I just want some rest. Please give me rest tonight.” I didn’t ask for strength for the next day. I’m not sure why. I think it was because I didn’t want to think about it anymore. I just wanted to fall into a deep and peaceful sleep, and I did. The next day I woke up feeling rested, but it didn’t matter how rested I was. Reality soon hit me and I felt weak and defeated again. I sat on the bed and watched people come in and out of my room getting ready. I watched Javi’s brother check the weather, and I heard him tell me to dress as warm as possible. It all sounded like faint echoes. As much as I tried to get up from the bed and begin to get dressed, I couldn’t. I watched as he got my little boy’s Dress Blues out. I watched as he began to dress them. That’s when I snapped out of it. I told Orlando to leave their pajamas on underneath the uniform as the extra layers would keep them warm. My concern for my children pulled me out of bed and gave me the push I needed to get dressed and ready. When I was finished getting ready, I looked at myself in the full length mirror. I noticed how much weight I had lost. My face looked pale, and there was not only sadness in my eyes, but exhaustion. for the first time since he’d died, I talked to Javi out loud. I said, “Look what this has all done to me, Javier. Look at me! I’m a damn mess! I know you can see me and hear me! You know what, if you want me to keep believing, if you want me to hold onto my faith, you give me a sign that you’re with me. Give me a sign!” I wiped my tears, put some bronzer on to add some color to my pale face, and walked down to the lobby.
We went outside and I noticed that it was cloudy. It was not raining, but the sun was not shining. It was a very gloomy day.
We arrived at Arlington National Cemetery and the guard waved us in, I was instantly reminded of how just the year prior, Javier and I had made a visit to Arlington. I remembered him telling me that this was where he needed to be laid to rest. That memory hurt. I couldn’t believe that just one year and three months later, I would be honoring his wishes. My mind and my heart were flooded with thoughts and emotions and again I was beginning to feel too weak to endure the day. As we pulled into the parking lot to park, I saw our old neighbors, Jean and Rachel Giraud. Rachel was wearing a red coat. Gean was wearing a black suit. Why I remember such an unimportant detail…I don’t know. It had been over a year since I’d seen them. I got out of the van and ran to them. I gave them both a hug. For a split second, I forgot why they were there. They didn’t look happy to see me. That’s when it all came back to me. I thanked them for coming and walked away. I could feel tears filling up my eyes.
We entered the administration building and went downstairs to a waiting room. I walked into the room and was overwhelmed at what I saw. Friends we hadn’t seen in months, even years were there. I wanted to turn around and run. I didn’t want to see any of them under these circumstances! I found a seat and did not speak to anyone. I couldn’t. I was holding on by a very thin thread and was doing everything that I could to stay strong. One hug, one word would break me. I watched as my grandma, my mom, my aunts, uncles, my dad, my sister and brother in law sat down and waited. I wanted to run to them and scream. I wanted to tell my uncle Simon to please fix this for me. I wanted my mom to take me in her arms and hold me while I cried my heart out, but I couldn’t. It was not the time or the place for a breakdown. I watched as SSgt. Mindo Estrella walked in. I watched as my dear friends Marques and Nicole walked in. Their family had come to pay their respects as well. I looked down. I couldn’t watch anymore. I closed my eyes, buried my head in my coat and spoke to Javi again, “Show me you’re with me! Give me a sign!” When I looked up again, I saw Mrs. Eve, Andrew’s teacher sitting down. I was in shock. She was the only one I was able to walk up to and greet. I said hello and thanked her for coming. I found Andrew and told him to say hi. I then walked back to my seat and sat there waiting, making every effort to avoid eye contact with anyone else. I still felt too weak and emotional to receive a hug. As I waited the funeral director came in and asked me to have a seat at the table because there were some things he wanted to go over. So, right there, in the middle of the room and in front of everyone, he proceeded to show me a picture of what my husband’s head stone would look like. I began to cry as soon as I saw it. I shook my legs in frustration and desperation. My father in law came to my side and hugged me. I stopped crying when I realized how many people were watching. The funeral director asked me to look at it again to make sure that everything was correct. They had put a hyphen in our last name. I told him, “There is no hyphen in between Ortiz and Rivera. It is just a space.” He said they would correct it. I grabbed the paper and said, “Please make sure that the hyphen is removed!” He could sense the urgency in my voice. He wrote above on the paper, “NO HYPHEN” with an arrow pointing to the hyphen. I took a deep breath and signed the paperwork. When the funeral director was finished speaking to us, the Sgt. Major of 8th and I came in. He told us all that they were ready for us to walk out.
We all walked out and everyone got into their cars. The funeral director escorted me into a black car that was parked directly behind the hearse. Papa, Glory, and the kids got into the car with me. As he shut the door, he told the guards, “Do not let any cars get in front of this one. This car goes first.” I was so caught up with emotions that I didn’t realize the driver of this car was the same man who knocked on my door and gave me the news of my husband’s death. I don’t remember speaking to him much. I don’t remember speaking to anyone. I think I just watched and waited. The guards waved for us to begin driving. As we turned, I noticed the name of the street, King Street. I could hear Javi’s silly voice in my head saying, “I the king….”. I thought to myself, “Nope, if this is the sign he’s giving me, I need something bigger!”
We drove to the top of the hill and the cars stopped. The funeral director came to the car and opened my door. He helped me out. When I got out of the car, the sight was simply amazing. To the left was the Marine Corps band, straight ahead the caisson platoon waited. There were black horses pulling an artillery wagon. They were waiting for Javier to be loaded onto it. When I say that every detail was thought out, impeccable, and simply amazing, I am not exaggerating! I was in awe. In that moment, I was in such awe that for a few moments, I forgot about my pain and simply watched. I watched as Javi’s casket was taken out of the hearse and loaded onto the wagon. It was done with precision and such honor. I stood there and watched in amazement. The funeral director then came and walked me to the very front of the crowd, directly behind the caisson wagon. The band began to march. I walked directly behind my husband’s casket. It felt surreal. With every step I took, I felt weaker and weaker. The funeral director and Papa came to my side and helped me walk. My eyes were focused on the casket. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. I took a deep breath and for the first time I realized how bitter cold it was. I saw my own breath in the air. My teeth were chattering, and I was shaking, but I can’t really say I felt cold. The only thing I could feel was heartache.
We all walked behind my husband as he took his final ride to his resting place. The horses, the band, and the Marines that were leading the caisson made a right onto York St. They came to a halt and my husband’s casket was unloaded off of the wagon. The Marines marched with exact precision to a place that had already been set aside on the grass. There were chairs set aside too. The funeral director walked me to the front row and sat me down in the first chair. The kids were sat beside me and Javier’s mom was seated next to them. Javier’s dad, Glory, Orlando, and Nene were seated in the second row. They were very specific about where they wanted us to sit. (I would later find out that this was because the associated press was given our names and our seat assignments). The band played and Pastor Ron began to speak. I sat there and focused my eyes on Javi’s casket. I don’t really remember what Pastor Ron spoke about. The only thing I remember clear as day, was when he said, “Javier was Dallas Cowboys fan.” (of course, of all things, that would be what caught my attention)
When Pastor Ron was finished speaking, the Marines marched up to Javi’s casket, they ifted it high in the air and lowered it back down in ceremonial fashion. They then folded the flag that was draped over it and presented it to the Sgt Major of Eight and I. As the Sgt. Major accepted the flag, I began to sob. I didn’t feel as though I would survive the next few moments. My heart felt an indescribable pain. I truly felt I would die of a broken heart. I leaned back in my chair, put my head back, looked up to heaven, and screamed, “God, please help me! Please help me!” I remember that moment very vividly because as soon as I said it, I felt numb. I sat up in my chair and saw the Sgt. Major approaching me with the flag. Tears began to run down my face. He kneeled in front of me and said, “On behalf of the president of the United States, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s service to Country and Corps.” He handed me the flag. I reached out to accept it. I cried. My son, Andrew was intrigued by the flag. He kept asking to hold it. I was frustrated and said, “NO!”
We were then asked to stand. The 21 gun salute was performed and Taps was played. This proved to be too much. My legs gave out and I began to fall. Orlando and the funeral director came to my side and helped me stand. I hugged Orlando and sobbed with frustration and aguish as I heard the playing of Taps. I then told myself to stop and take it all in. I told myself to look at the casket and remember every detail of it because this would be the last time I would see it. I sat down when the band was finished and thought about what I should say to Javi, if I was allowed the opportunity to approach the casket. Nothing seemed to be enough. As I sat there crying, thinking about what to say, and waiting for the opportunity to approach the casket, the Sgt. Major came back up to me, kneeled down beside me and handed me a small, black, velvet bag. Inside of it where the bullets from the 21 gun salute. It was an unexpected gesture, but very much appreciated. I held onto the that bag and the flag tightly.
The funeral director then came and told us all that we had to start moving out because another funeral would begin soon. I did not wait for him to say it was ok for me to approach the casket. I got up from my chair and walked up to my husband’s casket. I kneeled beside it and cried. I said, “I love you Babe. I’m so proud of you. You’re my hero.” I put one arm over it, and gave it a hug. I’m not exactly sure how long I was there, but I then stood up, and was gonna walk away. I couldn’t walk away without giving him a kiss. So, I bent down gave my husband’s casket a final kiss and whispered, “I love you times infinity. I win!” I stepped back and watched the rest of his family approach the casket. They kneeled down beside it and sobbed in anguish. When everyone had stepped back, I told my son, Andrew, to say goodbye to his dad and salute him one last time. He walked up to the casket, took his coat off, and as precisely and Marine-like as a five year old could, he saluted his father for the last time. Andrew was the last of us to be near the casket. How ironic that the last person to approach the casket was his son, and how appropriate it was that he bid his father a final farewell with a salute.
As I walked back to the street, I could feel myself on the verge of a complete breakdown. I was angry that I was being forced to walk away from my husband’s casket. I was angry that I had to leave him. I was angry that I had to bury him at all. I was heartbroken, I was sad. I was overwhelmed. When I reached the street, I saw a lot of people waiting to see me.
My best friend, Eta came up to me. She was holding Anthony. She gave me a hug and told me she just wanted me to know she was there. I cried as I hugged her. I looked out into the crowd and remember seeing the wives of Javi’s Marines. I saw Marines Javi had served with in years past. I saw other Marine wives. I saw husbands and wives together. An unexplainable anger rose within me. My friend Nicole, came up to me. She gave me a hug, and told me she loved me. Then she said, “It’s gonna be ok.” And that was all it took for an all out breakdown to begin. I screamed, “No, Nicole! It’s not gonna be ok. Everyone else is going home to their husbands! And me and my kids are going home to nothing!!! I HATE THIS! It’s not fair! I don’t want my husband to be dead. I want my husband back! I JUST WANT TO DIE WITH HIM! Everyone is going back to their happy little lives and I’m going back to face nothing but heartache!” Then, the Sgt. Major came up to me, and grabbed me by arms. I stopped my breakdown long enough to listen to him. He said very calmy and sternly, “Mrs. Ortiz, you are not alone. The Marine Corps will never leave you!” I looked at him and began crying again. Then, I heard someone say, “Take her to the car.” So the next thing I knew, Benji, Orlando, and Glory grabbed me and walked me to the car, all the while people tried to hug me on my way there. And with every hug, I cried more and more loudly. When I was put in the car, I sat in the passenger seat and screamed in sobs. I was in the midst of an uncontrollable breakdown and the only reason I stopped was because I realized my little boys were in the car too.
Everyone was asked to leave, but I refused to leave. I told the Captain that I would not leave until I saw the casket lowered into the ground. They would not allow me to get out of the car, because my behavior a few minutes prior proved to be irrational. So, I calmed down and watched from the car as Javier’s casket was lowered into the ground. As it was lowered, the sun started to peak through the clouds. As if heaven was making a statement, the sun shone brighter and brighter. He heard my cries! He gave me the sign I needed. I felt an unexplainable comfort in that sunshine.
As we drove away, I thought about my life. What would become of it? How would I endure day after day and the rest of my life without the love of my life? What would become of my kids? How would we survive? Would we survive?! I left a piece of my heart at Arlington National Cemetery. How does one live with a broken heart and a missing piece of it? I had no choice but to drive away and return to Camp Lejeune to face my new and difficult reality. More importantly, how would I make sure that Javier’s memory lived on, that his name would never stop being spoken, and that nobody would ever forget?