Friday, January 05, 2007

To Be ... a tiny tile in the mosaic

In one of her comments on Dec 29, 2006, Karen writes, ".....At this time, Rich was still able to e-mail and send the pics of the bridge. He then e-mailed telling me that he recieved his orders for his next mission and that they would be heading to what they called the "Wild, Wild West." This mission was to go and build COP South. They would head way west to the Syrian border to build a camp for the Iraqi Army to occupy, to try to keep insurgents from crossing the border into Iraq. This camp was not far from Al Quaim, where Operation Steel Curtain was clearing this city and others of insurgents. Rich let me know that while he was out at COP South, he wouldn't be able to e-mail because he said they would be out in the middle of nowhere, building a camp from dust, like the surface of the moon, nothing there. So for those months, I was able to befriend his XO that had contact with him daily from camp in Kuwait, and was able to know if he was safe daily. Due to the success of Operation Steel Curtain, the scope of COP South was reduced. He said that while out there at COP South they would see the "fireworks", sometimes just a mile away,from Operation Steel Curtain."

In looking through the scrapbook Karen designed for her brother, I find that Rich has written one of these emails on 10/29/06. He writes, "I'll be heading north in a couple of few days ... I should be there for at least a few months. I'm going to be the OIC for the det that is building this new place. According to the intel I've seen, right now it just looks like the surface of the moon ... nothing there ...ha ha...."

After I flip through a number of articles and photos, I find a familiar email that was sent to me; one I'd forwarded to Karen. It was an email from one of the Marines that was with Aaron, LCpl. David Bryant. David and Aaron were really good friends, and Chantal took me under her wing as far as news on the unit after we lost Aaron. Here is a portion of her email:

I don't know if you've seen the news since yesterday, but Echo Co. was hit pretty hard along the Syrian border. I don't think you know Maj. Mendoza, but he was KIA. SSgt Martinez has burns to over 75% of his body and Barnes, whom you should know, was hit with shrapnel to the armpit that went into his chest cavity. Barnes is seriously wounded, but he will make it. I wanted to let you know because I know that the media can mess things up in occassion and I wanted you to know the facts....

When I came across this email in her scrapbook, I thought, what is this doing here? Then I thought, oh, okay, because of the Syrian border, so I put Maj. Mendoza's name into Google, hoping to find out if he was a part of Operation Steel Curtain. Sure enough. He was.

Marine Maj. Ramon J. Mendoza, Jr.

37, of Columbus, Ohio.Mendoza died of wounds sustained from an improvised explosive device while conducting combat operations against enemy forces during Operation Steel Curtain in New Ubaydi, Iraq. During Operation Iraqi Freedom, his unit was attached to 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward). He was assigned to Battalion Landing Team 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, I Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Pendleton, California. Died on November 14, 2005.

I guess he was killed just a few days after LT Windham and his Seabees arrived at COP South.

And down not too far on Major Mendoza's message board, are these messages:

"To Mrs. Mendoza My name is Elena Zurheide, My husband was in the same unit as your husband at one point. I just want to give you my condolences I know that your husband as well as mine are our gardian angels and that they are proud of us. I hope to hear from you sometime in the future. God Bless you and your family."


"Elena Zurheide,I can not tell you how many prayers I have sent your way. Ray was 2/1 H&S Company when your husband was sent to heaven. Ray and your husband also carried the 300 pound memorial cross up the hills of Camp Horno. They did it together and now they are together in heaven. Ray wanted to attend the baby dedication last year, but he couldn't bear to do it. It was too difficult for him to be up there without your husband there as well. After Ray's services, I had a "motivational hump" to the cross at Camp Horno. We scattered the dirt from Ray's gravesite and I know Ray was with us that day. My 8 year old was one of the first to arrive at the cross. When I finally got up there, he told me that he heard his daddy's voice. Ray's family and friends humped up that hill not to remember only Ray but all of the brothern Marines lost in the pursuit of freedom for all of God's children. I thought of you at the top of the hill and prayed a special prayer for you and your son. You have always been in my thoughts in prayers. Thank you for reaching out to me, as we both now walk in the shoes down the path without the father of our children, and the love of our lives. I am humbled by your extension of love. May God's Grace always be with you and your son.

"Difficulties do not define you, they simply strengthen your ability to overcome."

Small world. Elena's husband along with another Marine from Echo, Brad Shuder, were killed on April 12, 2004--just a little over two weeks before Aaron was killed.

When Elena's husband and Shuder were killed, Aaron was very upset when he called. That's the only time I ever heard Aaron so negative. I asked him, "Did you get the pillow?"

He replied that he had indeed received the pillow and was about to go get some sleep. At midnight that night, Aaron called both me and his dad back, to let us know "he'd shook it off, and was OK now."

Aaron's best friend, Jerrod, never got that last phone call at midnight from Aaron, and I think I've told before that in his earlier phone call to Jerrod, he'd said, "I'm scared. I don't think I'm coming home."

So, I'll never know exactly how it was for him at midnight that night, but he did sound better. Much better. And now, that pillow is right next to me, here on the couch, much like it will be when I go to sleep, except then, the pillow stays clutched against my chest, up under my nose, and held much the same as the baby I once pulled out of the tub, petting, patting, and sniffing. I loved that smell.

As far as I know, Barnes is doing well. Yes, I'll always remember Barnes. He was on Aaron's machine gun team. During the luncheon the Marines in Aaron's section gave us the day after the Marine Ball of 2004, Barnes got up and told how Aaron would take the bathroom door off its hinges between their two rooms, get a few beers from Barnes' little fridge, and hang the door back up again.

Barnes said it took him a few months to figure it out. How beer was strangely disappearing from his room since it was locked!

Ohh, there were lots of stories that day. Every one of them make me smile.

I wonder how SSgt Martinez is. Was Doc Duty with them too, I wonder? And to Karen Mendoza, what a brave woman you are. I saw through Google all the good that comes from the love of your life.

So readers, as you can see, I've been working on COP South, got a little side-tracked, but appreciated the journey.

Will be back before the night is out with COP South. Okay, make that morning. My night, your morning, or whatever...

Love & Later,


aunt karen said...

I never asked him later, but when I got this forward from De'on, sent to her by Chantal, I copied the e-mail and included it in one of the many cards and letters that I sent to Rich in Iraq. I wanted him to know that Echo Co (Aaron's Unit) was again fighting hard, not far from where he was at COP South. Rich, do you remember this e-mail I mailed to you?

aunt karen said...

Also, De'on, what a wonderful story and thank you for more information on these Marines and their families.