It’s a sad state of affairs these days that so many of us know someone who was killed serving our country. This time of year I am always reminded of a good friend of mine, a Marine whose death punched me in the gut a long time ago.
His is name was Sergeant Rene Munoz and I’d met him several years earlier when we were stationed together in California. Even though he was much younger than me, we took to each other, in part because we grew up in the same rough part of Los Angeles, and in part because of his sardonic wit, which I found a never ending source of entertainment. But he was a caring person too, a gentle giant who’d offer the shirt off his back if needed, and he always greeted people with an infectious smile, the kind that made people feel like they were in on some private joke with him.
They say it’s a small Marine Corps, and so it wasn’t a surprise that after going our separate ways, we always seemed to run into each other in far off places. When the Marine Corps transferred me and my family to Okinawa, Japan, our paths crossed again. Rene’s helicopter squadron deployed to Okinawa for a six-month ‘pump’ which meant the married Marines, like Rene, had to leave their families behind at their home base. Unlike deployed Marines, my “accompanied” tour in Japan allowed me to have my family with me. So when Rene deployed to Okinawa, we’d have him over for dinner and sit around drinking beers, talking about life in Japan and eating homemade Mexican food which he couldn’t get enough of. We would talk for hours about everything from our families to the oddities of Marine Corps life abroad.
And then it happened. My wife and I knew something was wrong because as we were getting ready for bed and heard helicopters from the nearby air base overflying our home in route to and from some unknown destination. We lived close enough to the air base that under normal circumstances, the sound of helicopters overhead wouldn’t be a big deal, but it was late at night and the airfield had already closed. Plus the Japanese government kept the Marines on a tight leash and flying over populated Okinawan cities late at night just wasn’t done unless something had gone wrong. The flights continued, back and forth late into the night, and after a while, I fell asleep thinking of helos flying into the darkness.
The next morning I arrived at work and was told that a CH-53E from Rene’s squadron had gone down just off the northern coast of the island. The bodies of three of the aircrew had been recovered but there was still one body missing. Of course, no names had yet been released. I immediately called Rene’s squadron to check on him, and although he was an aircrewman, I kept thinking to myself that the odds were against him being in the mishap helicopter.
A Marine answered the phone at Rene’s squadron, and I asked for Sergeant Munoz. The Marine went silent for a second and then muttered something I couldn’t make out before putting me on hold. I sat there waiting for a minute and then two, growing more and more anxious. Finally, a friend of Rene’s from the squadron, Corporal J.D. Garza, picked up the phone. I’d met Garza when he came to our house with Rene for dinner the previous weekend. I heard Corporal Garza take a breath and say that Rene’s helo had gone down the night before. His body had not yet been recovered.
There are no words to adequately describe the feelings I had. Shock, denial, anger, profound sadness. They all applied, I suppose. I couldn’t help but repeat a tired cliché over and over again in my mind: life is not fair. And truly it wasn’t for Rene who had a wife and two young daughters waiting for him at home. His oldest daughter was only three years old, about the same age as my daughter at the time, which meant she was just old enough to understand that her daddy wouldn’t be coming back, but not old enough to understand why.A couple of hours later, Corporal Garza called me back and said that someone had snapped some photos of Rene a week ago, and they were having some pictures printed. He offered me some of the photos, and later that day, still in shock, I drove to the air base to pick them up. Once there, I was greeted by Garza and Rene’s boss who apparently knew that Rene and I had been close. I recall that he was very respectful with me and he even offered me his condolences, which struck me as odd at the time. Then he handed me a large envelop and I pulled out the photos of Rene.
Upon seeing the first picture, a torrent of emotions immediately washed over me and I cried despite trying hard not to. Embarrassed by my show of emotion in front of the two Marines, I looked away and apologized feebly. The older Marine, who was Rene’s senior enlisted leader, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Don’t worry about it. I’ve already done my crying.”
It took weeks to find the helo wreckage sitting on the ocean floor, and it wasn’t until then that Rene’s body was finally recovered. The delay actually enabled me to attend Rene’s funeral in California several weeks after the accident.
During his last visit to our home for dinner a few days before his death, Rene talked about the upcoming end of the deployment and how he was looking forward to going home to his family. He mentioned that he’d plan to buy some Disney movies to take home to his daughters. It really bothered me that he’d never have the chance to do that for his little girls. So prior to leaving Okinawa to attend the funeral, I bought the movies and was able to give them to his wife, Maribel, after the service. The girls looked so young and vulnerable. It broke my heart.
I still keep in touch with Maribel, who relocated to New Jersey after Rene’s death, and Facebook has allowed me to watch Rene’s daughters grow into beautiful young ladies. I’ve learned over the years that while Maribel might have seemed vulnerable back then, in reality, she is one of the strongest women I know. A cancer survivor, Maribel is the kind of mother who would take the girls on vacations between chemo treatments in order to show her daughters that everything was going to be okay.
But she still thinks of Rene and it can still get to her. A neighbor’s father once came to help her clean out a flooded basement when Hurricane Irene made landfall and inundated New Jersey. As they were sifting through her soaked possessions, she came across a wedding photo and broke down in tears. She looked up and saw that the man who’d been helping her; he didn’t know what to do. So she took a deep breath, gathered herself and did what she’s always done, which is to get on with life for the sake of her girls. I no longer worry about Rene’s wife or his daughters, and that brings me some peace.
As we celebrate another Memorial Day, I hope everyone stops and thinks of those who gave everything in service to their country, and of their families who had to pick up the pieces of their lives and carry on. Furthermore, I hope we all take tangible actions to honor those who’ve fallen while serving their country. Donate to an organization that assists veterans and their families like Wounded Warriors or the American Red Cross. Visit or check up on a family members who’ve lost someone. Tell them that you’re thinking of them.
As for me, I think I’ll go out back, have a seat and drink a beer or two for Rene who we lost 14 years ago. A lot of water’s passed under the bridge since then and time heals, but I may still allow myself a little cry for my friend.
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