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.’’