My name is Veronica Ortiz Rivera, and with my last name of Ortiz Rivera, comes a lot of love and pride, but also a never ending heartache. I am the widow of Marine SSgt. Javier Ortiz Rivera. He was killed in Afghanistan on November 16, 2010. As I sit here and type, I think about my life and everything that’s happened since his death. A part of me feels it was easier to tell you about the events surrounding his death, because I could describe to you the facts and share the details of my emotions. I’ve written about the knock on the door, receiving his body, his funeral, and his burial, and now it’s time to let you see how much my husband’s death truly broke me. I won’t lie, there’s a part of me that doesn’t want anyone to know because, well, that’s private information. It’s not easy to admit how low of a low I really reached, but I can’t just share the parts of the story that make me sound strong and dignified, that would be selling God short. So, I will do my best to share with you exactly how it is that I’ve been able pick up the pieces of my broken self, my broken heart, and my shattered life, and get to where I am today. Please bear with me, it’s not easy describing so much heartache and brokeness in one blog entry. It will take several entries to describe the depth of my sadness, anger, and pain.
As I said before, I returned to Camp Lejeune on December 3, 2010 from Javier’s burial at Arlington National Cemetery. I was a mixture of emotions and returning to Camp Lejeune was extremely difficult. We lived on base housing. I was surrounded by Marine families, all of whom were still complete. I was living on base, but my Marine was gone, forever. I felt out of place, but at the same time, I felt comfort in being on base. I felt envious of every wife that still had her husband, but at the same time, I didn’t want to be around wives that were not married to a Marine. I felt out of place, but I also felt at home. I was confused. I didn’t know where I belonged anymore. I didn’t feel I belonged in the civilian world, but I wasn’t sure that I belonged in the Marine Corps world anymore, either. I lost my husband and my life style in the blink of an eye.
I am blessed to say that I did not return home alone. Javier’s cousin, Lourdes, came back with me. Having her with me was a huge help. She’s funny, sarcastic, and a lot of fun to be around. In those first few days back, she kept me busy. She did all she could to make me laugh, to occupy my time, and to keep me distracted. My best friend Eta, was also a huge help. Looking back, I can honestly say that the first few days I chose to live in denial. Yes, my mind knew what my new reality was, but my heart refused to accept it. In the moments when my heart would have a momentary reality check and the pain felt unbearable, I began to sleep the pain away. If the heartache became to much, I would tell myself to take a nap so that I didn’t have to feel anything. When I woke up, I would feel better. Sleep became an escape for me, but it was also a double edged sword.
Sleeping my days away, meant that I had a hard time sleeping at night. When night time came I would lay in bed and think about everything. I would also lay in the dark looking through Facebook on my phone. I read everyone’s statuses and looking at everyone’s pictures, and quite honestly, my heart would fill with anger. Life just went on for everyone else, while mine seemed to have come to a standstill. Although I did my absolute best to put on a strong front and not show the world my anger, it did make me mad to see these statuses, especially from the wives of the Marines from Javier’s platoon. I was jealous and envious of them. I had never experienced or felt a jealousy quite like the one I felt every time I saw them post about their husbands. I can honestly say that not one time did I ever wish that it had been one of their husbands and not mine, but I did wish my husband hadn’t died and that I could still live each day with the hope of being reunited with mine. Every night, as I laid in bed, I felt hopeless, defeated, and lost. The glass always seemed to be half empty at night. Instead of being thankful that I was able to make it through another day, I went to bed drained, exhausted, and dreading the light of the next day. I was tired of the heartache. Three weeks had now gone by since I’d heard my husband’s voice, and I felt like I was going through Javier withdrawals. I would play the voice mail message he left me over and over again, just to hear him call me baby and say he loves me. I would watch videos of him over and over just to hear his voice and see him moving and alive. I became desperate for any and all pictures of him. I became desperate for any stories about him. I would ask people to send me any pictures they had of him and when they didn’t send them to me fast enough, I would become annoyed and frustrated. I would hold onto every piece of Javi for dear life.
I did a pretty good job of keeping my anger private, but I was angry for more than one reason. I was angry because Javi was killed. I was angry because I hated my life without him. I was angry because the way he died left me no choice but to take the military’s word for it that he had really died. I was angry because I did not open the casket and make sure for myself. I regretted not doing so with every ounce of my heart and soul. I would tell myself that because I never saw it for myself, it couldn’t be. It had to be an awful mistake. And then my mind would tell my heart that it was true and I became angry for listening to my brother in law and Javi’s Marine friends who told me that I shouldn’t open the casket, that I should remember Javi alive, not dead. Who the hell were they? They didn’t know what was best for me. I am his wife, I could have opened it. I had every right. I could have given him one last kiss. I could have, but I didn’t. I became angry with myself for being such a coward and not fighting the decision that was made for me. I was angry with myself for being too cowardly and weak to put my big girl panties on and just open the casket and look inside. I became angry with the Taliban for killing him. My heart would fill with anger and disappointment and heartache. I would cry silent tears. Tears of anger, pain, and sadness would fall from my eyes every night until I fell asleep. And every night, I would fall asleep hating the Taliban, hating Afghanistan, hating Javi’s death, and hating my life.
While I’m admitting what made me so angry about Javi’s death, I’ll go ahead and admit that it made me extremely angry that all of a sudden everyone seemed to know and love Javi. Everyone wanted a piece of him. Everyone wanted to be my friend on Facebook. All of a sudden everyone knew us. All of a sudden everyone cared. Why did my husband have to die in order for people to recognize the hero that he was? Death didn’t make him a hero. He was a hero long before. He was a hero for every deployment he endured prior to his death and for every single second he served our country. He was a hero for the amazing husband and father that he was. He was a hero the minute he decided to lead me and the kids on a Godly path. He was a hero for every smile and laughter he brought to my life. He was a hero! Why had it taken so long for the world to recognize him as such?! Where were all these people that claimed to care when he was deployed?! A lot of them knew he was deployed and never reached out to ask how he was doing or offer to send him a care package. NO! I was the one who stood by his side. I was the one who endured the long work hours, the field, training ops, and deployments. I was the one taking care of his kids by myself, sending care packages, holding down the fort while he was gone. I was the one who put my feelings aside and no matter what, swallowed my fears and my tears, and never let him sense weakness. When he called, everything was fine. I reassured him and gave him peace that the kids were ok, and so was I. If I was tired from the day to day struggles of being alone and hating the deployment, I sucked it up and made sure that he never got off the phone feeling like I couldn’t handle it. I was the one who stood by his side through good and bad, and now, I had to share him with the world? Now he was everybody’s hero?! I desperately wanted to tell a lot of people to “kick rocks”. I wanted to scream and yell and tell a person or two to never speak his name again, because if they couldn’t respect him in life, it was too late to start now. I wanted to punch every person in the face that pretended as though they were great friends with him, when in reality they barely knew him. While I appreciated the well wishes, condolences, and prayers, it made me angry to have to share my husband with the world. He was my hero, had been MY hero for years. More than anything or anyone, he was my kid’s hero, had been their hero all of their lives. He was the only hero they knew. I wanted our life to go back to it being just him, me, and the kids. I had a hard time adjusting to the idea that Javier was now an American hero and with that status came the obligation of sharing him with the world and appreciating the recognition he was given. It also meant, learning how to accept and receive all of the support I was being offered. That was hard for me. For so many years, it had just been me and Javi depending on each other, with no help from anyone else. It made me angry to have to ask other people for help. I didn’t want their help. I wanted my husband’s help! I wanted my husband back. I didn’t want him to be an American hero because I didn’t want to be a widow.
An equal amount of anger and sadness was consuming me in those first few days. I didn’t know what to do with so much anger and heartache. I didn’t want anyone to visit me because I wasn’t sure if I would break down crying or cursing. I didn’t want to talk to anyone who I felt would make it ok for me to be weak. I didn’t want to speak to anyone who I felt didn’t understand. So, only a few select people were allowed to come visit me. I only had phone conversations with a select few. I ignored phone calls, text messages, and Facebook messages. I only allowed Eta and Joann to come check on us. I only answered phone calls from my sister and Javi’s brother and sister. I put on a strong front for everyone else on Facebook.Facebook became my window to the outside world and everyone’s window into mine.I would post a status here and there to reassure everyone that I was ok, but even that made me mad. While I can honestly say that I was sincere with what I posted, it did make me angry to feel like I had to reassure and make everyone else comfortable.
Anger is an ugly, ugly thing. When you allow yourself to be mad about one thing, you find a million other reasons to be mad. I’ll never forget when one of the wives from Javi’s unit called me. She wanted to know how I was doing and if there was anything she could do for me. She meant well, I know she did, but I was angry. So, when she asked me how I was doing, I said “My husband just died, how the hell do you think I’m doing?” When she said she was very sorry for my loss, I replied with, “Right.” And when she asked me if there was anything they could do for me, I said, “No. I don’t want your help. Oh wait, there is one thing you can do for me, tell the Family Readiness Officer he sucks!” I hung up the phone and didn’t even feel bad about being so rude. That’s when I realized that I was starting to feel entitled to live in anger. I didn’t want to be angry. I didn’t want to be rude. I didn’t want to live like this.
I was trying my absolute best to stay strong, smile when needed, reassure everyone, not give anyone reason to worry, continue with life for the sake of the kids, and hide my anger. I didn’t know how to do it all. How would I get past the anger, how would I continue living, not even a week had gone by since returning from Arlington and already I felt too overwhelmed to deal with anyone or anything. I wanted to give up on life, but Lourdes, Eta, and Joann did not let me. They stood by my side and listened to my fits of anger, my inappropriate comments, and helped me with my kids while I slept my pain away.
Yes, it is safe to conclude that in those first few days of living and facing a new reality, I was bitter, I was angry, and I was completely useless to myself and my children. I hated life. I didn’t think I could possibly hold more anger or more heartache, but I was wrong. The Casualty Assistance Officer called me to tell me he had some stuff that was recovered from Javier’s body, and he would be bringing them to me. That was when I was reminded, yet again, that just because Javier had been buried, that didn’t mean that the process was over. There was still a lot to face, and that made me angry all over again, especially with God…