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.