For a moment, Hilda Ewing hoped that if she just didn’t open the door, if she didn’t let the officer in her home, somehow the news might be different. But as the knowing feeling of a parent washed over, Ewing stood facing the officer as he delivered the news that her eldest son, Army Pfc. Jeremy Ricardo Ewing, 22, was dead, one of eight soldiers killed in a Baghdad car bomb attack on April 29, 2004.
“I had a funny feeling earlier in the day, not really something I can explain,’’ says Ewing, 54, of Miami Gardens. “And I knew from watching television that when they come to the door, it’s never good news. I didn’t want to let them in because I didn’t want to hear what they had to say.’’
It was 13 months into Operation Iraqi Freedom, and two other South Florida families had already heard the ominous knock at the door. Before the war was declared over in December 2011, 48 South Florida soldiers would die in combat zones some 7,000 miles from home.
Ten years ago, U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq on March 20, 2003, with predawn airstrikes, a mission to overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein and liberate the Iraqi people. The cost and consequences, the human toll was enormous: nearly 4,500 U.S. service members killed, with almost 200 from Florida.
As the war raged, the rationale for the invasion has been studied, debunked and defended; the legacy of nearly nine years of battle is still uncertain. A decade later, the politics still smolder, but for those who paid the ultimate price and their loved ones, what remains is the magnitude — felt in small and large ways, most every day — of loss.
South Florida’s fallen served in every branch of the military, 44 men, 4 women — 27 from Miami-Dade, 14 from Broward and seven from Palm Beach County, the last place they called home stretching from Homestead to Riviera Beach.
Just a little more than three weeks after the invasion, South Florida lost its first, a Cuban immigrant who dreamed of becoming a firefighter. Marine Cpl. Armando Ariel Gonzalez, 25, of Hialeah, died in Southern Iraq on April 14, 2003, crushed as a commercial refueling tanker he was repairing collapsed on top of him. He had called his wife, four months pregnant, hours before the accident, having waited behind a long line of comrades queued up to call home.
The last South Florida casualty of the war was Army Staff Sgt. Amilcar H. Gonzalez, 26, of Miami, who had given up his senior year at Southridge High School to enlist in the military just six days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The army tank commander was killed by insurgents May 21, 2010, in Mosul. Deployed four times to Iraq, Gonzalez had transformed himself from a reserved teenager to a decorated staff sergeant who commanded respect.
The youngest, Army Pfc. Charles M. Sims, drowned in Baghdad. He died on Oct. 3, 2003, about four months after his high school graduation and 17 days before this 19th birthday. A graduate of Miami Carol City Senior High, Sims had been in ROTC all four years, never wavering from his goal of joining the military.
Mostly, the fallen were in their in their 20s — old enough to have fully formed dreams, young enough to not have realized them. Marine Lance Cpl. Rene Martinez, 20, of Miami, wanted to be an accountant. Army Cpl. Junior Cedeno Sanchez, 20, of Miami, talked about becoming a commercial pilot. Army Pfc. Brandon R. Sapp, 21, of Lake Worth, had planned to become a member of a police SWAT Team.
And Marine Pfc. Oscar A. Martinez, 19, of North Lauderdale, simply, singularly, wanted to become a Marine. Initially, the Marines didn’t accept Martinez because of his weight: 210 pounds. He was determined to enlist, running in his neighborhood daily in sweatpants and garbage bags to sweat off 30 pounds. Martinez reported for duty in December 2003. He died Oct. 12, 2004, in a missile attack. At the time, he was with his unit eating at the base in Iraq’s Anbar province, just three weeks into this eight-month stint.
Some of the troops were new fathers and mothers, leaving behind young children. A few were engaged or newlyweds. At least three fathers didn’t live long enough to meet their newborns.
Some had almost made it home when they were killed. Army Spc. Alfred H. Jairala 29, of Hialeah, was due home any day from an extended tour before the father of two young daughters was killed when an explosive device detonated near his vehicle in Baghdad.
Ewing was due home too but his stay had been extended by two weeks.
The Miami Central High graduate had enlisted in the Army just after the 9/11 terror attacks, a decision he never shared with his parents it was made. But it shaped by his patriotism, the dream to go to college and the even bigger dream to buy his parents a home and move them from their two-bedroom apartment in Opa-locka. He had planned to return from Iraq and finance his parents’ next chapter. He died without also ever seeing his toddler daughter.
“We didn’t have the money to send him to school. He believed that going into the military was a way out, a way to better himself,’’ says Hilda Ewing, who moved to Miami from the Turks and Caicos. “He always talked about how he just wanted to make something of himself. He wanted to serve his country because he believed in the United States.’’
She pauses, swept away by a fond but anguished memory. “He was so funny. And handsome and likeable. He loved to eat, but he was skinny. Cheesecake and raisin bread were his favorite sweets. And oh my, he loved the Miami Dolphins, even when they were losing,’’ she says chuckling before her voice thins and gives way to silence.
Lillian L. Clamens, a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserve, died in a rocket attack in Baghdad on Oct. 10, 2007, leaving behind a husband and three children. With about 13 years of active duty and reserve experience, she was killed just two days before she was scheduled to end a year-long tour. Her husband, Raymond Clamens, had communicated with her by text message two days before she died.
“In two days she was going to be done,’’ says Clamens, 39, a logistics manager for the ROTC at Florida International University who lives with his children in Homestead. “She was such a happy person. Outgoing, she loved music and movies.’’
Every day that Army Spc. Jessica Yvette Sarandrea was away in Iraq, she called home to hear the voices of her parents in Miami.
The morning calls were short, more check-in than conversation. The night calls, almost always around 8 p.m., were for prayer.
“My wife, Xiomara, Jessica and I — the three of us prayed together. We prayed for her safety and for her spiritual life. There was not one day that we did not get a call from Jessica when she was in Iraq. The whole house stopped when she called,’’ says her stepfather, Antonio Mansilla, 42. “On the day she died, we had missed her morning call because we went to work early that day. Later in the day, after we came home from work, a chaplain and an officer came to the house.’’
Sarandrea, 22, was on her second tour of duty when she was killed March 3, 2009, by enemy mortar fire while walking from her office at the forward operating base in Mosul.
She had enlisted just after graduation from Coral Gables High School and reenlisted to be with her husband, Alejandro Sarandrea. They were both from Miami but met and married in Kuwait on her first deployment. She had planned to eventually study law and become an entertainment attorney.
She is now buried in Section 60 of the Arlington National Cemetery, among the rows and rows of white headstones of military personnel who sacrificed their lives in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
“Jessica was so excited about life. She was happy and focused on career,’’ says Mansilla. “When I think about Jessica, I don’t think about the war, I think about the loss of my daughter.’’