Echoes Project: The Homecoming
Veronica didn’t want to be at the airport when the Marines returned home from Afghanistan in April 2011.
“It was supposed to be a happy time – them smiling because they were with their families,” Veronica said nearly five years later. “I didn’t want them to feel sad because I was there. I didn’t want to hurt them anymore.”
Instead, she hung a sign with a quote about Javier’s men from one of his letters.
She had started to heal and didn’t want to make anyone sad. Her friend made her a quilt out of Javier’s old clothes, and Veronica kept a candle lit alongside Javier’s photos, his burial flag and dog tags. What Veronica didn’t realize was that even though the Marines were happy to be home with their families, they couldn’t stop thinking about Veronica.
“Seeing everyone hug their loved ones, I just couldn’t imagine what it felt like [for Javier and Veronica] to not have that — it was sad, and it absolutely ruined my homecoming,” said Blydell, the platoon commander who helped put Javier’s body on the helicopter.
While she wasn’t there when Javier’s Marines arrived at Camp Lejeune, she and the kids decorated sheets in Javier’s memory that she hung along the chain link fence at the entrance to the base. The sheets were a sobering reminder for the Marines as they drove past the base’s front gate.
Reyes stepped out of the bus to greet his wife, Christina. They then gathered his belongings and drove straight to Veronica’s house. No food. No stops. She knew they were coming, but couldn’t believe when he knocked on the screen door at the front of her home. The three of them hugged and cried. Reyes had waited months for this moment.
“She wanted all the answers that the Marine Corps wouldn’t give her — I tried to explain it to her in the most humane way possible,” Reyes said. “They wouldn’t let her see him at the funeral. She wanted to know his injuries. She wanted the answers that nobody could give her unless they were there. I doubt it made her happy, but it gave her the sense of knowing.”
Later in the week, the Marines of Second Platoon invited Veronica to the base so she could meet the men whom Javier had served with. She cried. The Marines cried. Veronica apologized for their pain. The Marines apologized for her loss and that they couldn’t save Javier. For Naveiro, the Marine who helped carry the stretcher after the blast, this introduction was one he wouldn’t forget.
“I’d never met Veronica and the kids,” Naveiro said. “Seeing them in person once we came home – it was hard. I knew I had to be there. We knew we needed to be there for her. You don’t really expect to be a 20 year old and introduce yourself to a widow. I remember her crying and hugging people, but I didn’t know how I could help.”
On April 18, 2011, Veronica and about twelve family members walked alongside Sgt. Rafael Peguero down the aisle of a theater on base. Five months after leading Javier on that deadly patrol, Peguero was ushering Javier’s widow, children and family onto the stage. She struggled to walk, gasping for air as she cried for Javier. All the Marines sitting in the audience knew Javier, and they could no longer hold back their tears as they saw Veronica fall to her knees while clutching the military dog tags on Javier’s memorial.
Zach Bryan, the Marine who flew in the helicopter carrying Javier’s body, remembers her cries. “The worst part out of all of it for me was our memorial where Veronica screamed with every part of herself for God to bring a person back to her,” he said. “There is no sound in the world like it. It was the sound of pure pain. It is a sound that I wish I had never heard.”
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Veronica threw a party that night to celebrate Javier’s life. Marines and sailors danced with a cardboard cutout in Javier’s likeness. Alyssa wore a white belt from his dress uniform around her waist. Veronica smiled and cried at the same time that whole night. The group sat together and watched a video that she had made, The Life of Javier Ortiz Rivera.
All of the Marines and sailors were present, and Reyes, the Marine who took over for Javier, said that the event was “the most perfect way for everyone to come home from Afghanistan.” The Marines had been suppressing their emotions when they were away, and Reyes said the party enabled them to talk about and express what they’d ignored for months.
“I think it showed her how many people knew her husband and cared about him,” Reyes said. “It was a place to share memories. She knew he was a good Marine, but the party helped her realize the impact he had on people’s lives.”
The night of the party was the first time since Javier’s death that Veronica felt any kind of relief. Not without pain, she realized how many people loved Javier and knowing that has helped her recover from his death.
Javier was a father figure to one of his junior Marines, Matthew Ballard. Ballard’s mother and father abandoned him early in life, but losing Javier was more painful. As a child, Ballard said he had questioned his parents’ love, but he never questioned Javier’s.
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Ballard didn’t know much about Veronica and the kids when Javier died. Learning about him through Veronica during the years since his death has made him even more grateful to have known Javier. Being a part of Veronica’s life has been a healing experience for him. During a ceremony aboard Camp Lejeune on September 2, 2012 – just weeks before the two year anniversary of Javier’s death – Veronica pinned Ballard’s corporal chevrons onto his uniform when he received his meritorious promotion.