The explosion woke Second Lt. Jason Blydell, and he jumped off his cot as his patrol base shook violently. The radio crackled: “Stand by, casualty report… We have one urgent surgical.” Then silence.
Fifty or so Marines crowded around the radio. They were from Patrol Base Griffin, the northernmost Marine outpost in Afghanistan that was manned by the Second Platoon, Alpha Company, First Battalion, Eighth Marines. The base was their home. Beige walls. Beige floor. Beige Roads. Blue skies. Half the size of a football field. Miles from help. Surrounded by Afghanistan. One way in. One way out. One generator hums and sputters outside the sleeping quarters. The silence between radio transmission echoes off of the twelve-foot security walls surrounding them that are hardened by the sun. More beige.
Blydell scanned the packed room and waited for medical evacuation directives, but the voice of the Marine on patrol came across the radio. He knew one of his Marines was dead.
“You could almost hear it on the other end of the radio that he was killed in action, but the Marine didn’t want to say it yet,” recalled Blydell, a Nahant, Mass. native. “When he finally said he’d been killed, your stomach can’t drop any lower.”
Blydell and his Marines were roughly one kilometer away. While he stewed in a mix of fear and failure, he knew now wasn’t the time to show emotion – or “weakness,” as he called it – in front of his men. He said he tried to be as stoic as possible, to appear as he knew what he was doing and to be a “strong” leader, but quietly, he couldn’t stop imagining what was happening at the epicenter of the blast.
The Marines on the foot patrol stared at Javier’s body with disbelief. They all described similar accounts of fear, confusion and horror. They knew Javier as a leader who wouldn’t ask his men to do what he wouldn’t do himself. So when Javier inched across the ground on his hands and knees that morning to investigate a suspicious patch of dirt that might contain explosives, the Marines thought nothing of it.
As Javier inched closer toward the explosive, the men stood or knelt as they peered across the beige battlefield. They had always found the buried explosives before anyone was hurt. They feared the blast, but they weren’t ready for it. The explosion changed everything.
Fifteen pounds of homemade explosives detonated beneath Staff Sgt. Javier Ortiz Rivera’s upper torso. When the dust settled, the Marines found his torso with wounds to his face, arms and chest. His rifle was mangled. His wedding ring was ripped from his hand. The Marines would never find it. Javier, the 26-year-old New York native, was dead.
When David Ketron, a sergeant and squad leader from Baltimore, heard the blast, he dropped his Velveeta macaroni and cheese – a treat sent from home – and grabbed a handful of Marines. The group rushed to the blast site, but stopped when they saw Javier on a stretcher being carried by a group of men who could barely breathe. They were each wearing more than fifty pounds in body armor, weapons and ammunition and had ran with Javier’s body on a stretcher for nearly one mile. With each step the Marines took, Javier’s lifeless hand bounced on the stretcher. Javier wasn’t the first of his friends that Ketron had seen with these fatal injuries.
“My squad leader in Iraq died very similarly,” said Ketron. “As soon as I saw Staff Sgt. Ortiz in the same shape, it brought me back to where I was [mentally] in Iraq.” This was the first time most of these Marines had seen someone in their group die, and Ketron didn’t want to show any overwhelming emotion in front of his men. He wanted to keep his sense of helplessness private.
Ketron and Javier had been close. While he looked at the body on the stretcher, Ketron remembered their talks about relationships and religion. He holds those times with Javier close to this day, and he knows those conversations helped him become a stronger person and have a stronger marriage with his wife, Chelsea. Not everyone in Second Platoon walked away with such cherished memories, and some still have difficulty talking about Javier’s death.
Blydell felt as though part of his duties as their platoon commander was to place Javier’s body on the medical evacuation helicopter. Once the pilots were inbound toward the platoon’s patrol base, Blydell strapped on his gear and ran to clear a landing zone of other possible explosive devices. The last thing Blydell wanted was to lose another Marine, he said. With the ground clear, the helicopter landed, and Blydell grabbed one handle of the stretcher and walked beside Javier for the last time.
“I had to be the guy to carry him onto the bird. I feel like it was my way of helping my men, which wasn’t much at the time.”
— Jason Blydell
Javier wasn’t the only Marine wounded in the blast that day. Lance Corporal Zach Bryan was standing beside Javier when the explosion occurred. He was knocked unconscious and needed to be evaluated at a hospital. As Javier and Bryan disappeared across the horizon in the helicopter, Blydell savored feeling lost in the dust the helicopter’s rotor wash kicked up. He lost it as he screamed into the dust storm, regaining his composure once the air cleared. He had a war to fight and men to protect. He didn’t have time to mourn.
Bryan sat inches from Javier’s body in the helicopter. He felt guilty when he stared at the corpse. Bryan had always been belligerent, he knew, and acted as though he was a “gift to machine gunnery”, but none of that had mattered to Javier. Bryan’s platoon sergeant, who was three ranks his senior, had cared only whether a Marine acted like a Marine and did as a Marine is supposed to do: be proficient and disciplined when following any order. Bryan didn’t always do the latter.
Bryan cannot forget how Javier looked lying in the back of the helicopter and wonders how he would feel if he hadn’t seen Javier’s body. Blydell wonders if he should have looked under the bloodstained sheet draped over Javier’s face.
“When you think of an IED, you think of missing limbs,” Bryan said. “He was leaning over this thing. I still pray that he didn’t feel a thing.” Bryan still struggles through his days and nights trying to cope with seeing Javier in that condition. He tried everything to forget. Talking with friends. Drinking. Work. School. Therapy. Brian said that it feels “wrong” for him to get over the loss of Javier.
The helicopter ride to the hospital lasted 30 minutes. Bryan choked up every time the wind lifted the sheet off Javier. He didn’t want to look away because he didn’t want Javier to be alone. He forced himself to peer out of the windows until the helicopter landed at Camp Bastion, one of the largest trauma hospitals in Afghanistan. Despite his brain injury, Bryan refused a wheelchair. He walked alongside Javier into the hospital. Then he walked away from his platoon sergeant for the last time.
Back at the company’s headquarters near Patrol Base Griffin, Captain Daniel F. O’Brien, the Company Commander for Alpha Company at the time, was preparing to inform nearly 200 Marines and sailors that Javier had been killed and Bryan was wounded, but he had to wait for confirmation from Camp Bastion’s field hospital. Once verified, O’Brien picked up the radio handset and spoke to his men, many more than a dozen miles from him at various patrol bases like Javier’s. O’Brien knew what he was going to say. He had rehearsed those words dozens of times. Not having to look into anyone’s eyes as he spoke made the delivery easier.
“It’s not like walking into a squad’s hooch and telling them their friend died,” said Captain O’Brien with pause. “Saying something like that has an emotional toll. It is hard. I don’t know what it is, but saying it out loud to your men for the first time makes it hard to keep your composure. As a leader, you just need to remember that sympathy does no good. It doesn’t accomplish the mission. You may not like it, but you have no other option.”
When Javier died, his body began its journey home. First to Germany. Then to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. A few days later, on December 2, 2010, Javier Ortiz Rivera was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. That same day, Veronica wrote a post about her husband on Facebook:
“I honored Javi’s wishes and laid him to rest at Arlington National, and so I leave half of my heart in Arlington with him. Rest in eternal peace, my love. You will always complete me. I, thy queen, shall miss you everyday [sic] of my life!”
— Veronica Ortiz Rivera
Over the years, people who knew Javier and Veronica would post on her Facebook to remember and reflect. Friends left hundreds of comments on Veronica’s feed. Some wrote just three simple words, “I love you,” while others began with, “I remember when… .” Facebook kept the wound fresh for Veronica. In some ways she treasured that, knowing that Javier wasn’t forgotten and that she wasn’t alone.
Veronica started writing as a way to process her emotions. Nearly three years after Javier’s death, she described returning home from his funeral on her blog:
““…When we arrived at Camp Lejeune, the very first thing I saw as we entered the base were welcome home signs, and those welcome home signs were not put up for me and the kids. Looking at those signs made me angry. It felt like those wives were rubbing it in my face. I wanted to get out of the car and rip them all down. Every welcome home sign that I saw felt like a bullet to the heart.”
— Veronica Ortiz Rivera
She envied all the spouses who could hug their husbands, she wrote. She once loved seeing those signs, but now, she thought that the people who put them up were heartless. When she pulled through the gate of Camp Lejeune to drive to her home once Javier had died, she felt the same about the Marine Corps.
“My family had been destroyed by war,” she wrote. “We pulled into my driveway from Arlington, and to my surprise, there was balloons and a welcome home sign hanging on my porch just for us. I instantly felt incredibly guilty for thinking such hateful thoughts about the welcome home signs on the gate.”
When everyone left Veronica’s house, she slept alone in the bed that she once shared with Javier. She cried as she stared at pictures of her husband. She knew that she’d never see Javier’s name pop up for a text or a call. That she’d never hear him talk in his sleep or feel him twitch as he fell into a deep slumber. That she’d never fall asleep to the sound of his heartbeat ever again. Her biggest fear was now her reality.