Anthony was three when his father died, and he hasn’t stopped missing being tickled since. There isn’t much that he says he remembers about his father, but there is one thing he hopes he never forgets.
“I remember when he would say how much he loves me,” said Anthony as he wiped away his tears using his pajama sleeve. “He always smiled. …He used to call me his ‘Silly Rabbit’, and I think it’s because I hop like a bunny and do everything weird.”
Anthony knows exactly where he got his silly ways. One of his few vivid memories of Javier is when he took a nap in a rental stroller at Disney World before leaving for Afghanistan. Looking at pictures “makes [him] have tears come up inside of [his] eyes,” he said.
If there's a chance that Javier comes back to visit, Anthony has it all planned out.
Anthony believes that his father would be proud of him for taking care of his mother, but “if mom blurts everything out, then he would be upset,” Anthony joked.
Anthony constantly asks his older sister, Alyssa, to tell him about their dad, and that’s the one thing about him that she said doesn’t bother her.
“My dad treated me so great. Once he died, I felt really bad and I wish I had treated him differently," she said. "I wish I had shown him that I loved him more and taken more pictures with him.”
Anthony’s older brother, Andrew, said, “War costs everything. It costs your life. It can cost your friends. It costs everything. …I felt like war cost me a father and the guy who I loved. My heart broke into little pieces, and I’m just starting to pick some of those pieces up.”
Andrew had wanted his father to teach him how to be a man and about respect, loyalty and integrity. “I really wish he was here to teach me how to be just like him,” he said.
Returning to school and having to explain to friends that their father had died kept the pain fresh, Andrew said. While they know their friends were just trying to show that they cared, it actually made moving on more difficult for Alyssa and Andrew. They had trouble thinking about other things. “So much pain” is why Andrew, now 11, said he hides his emotions.
“My dad dying didn’t mess up my childhood, but I lost the man I poured everything out to and since my mom was hurting, I didn’t want to talk to her about it, so I just kept my mouth shut,” he said recently. “Seeing her cry makes me want to cry — I try to comfort her. I want my dad to think that I’m doing a good job taking care of her.”
And even though he doesn’t like talking about his memories with his father, he imagines that time together with his father to ease the pain.
“We would do the Marine exercises, and he would just laugh at how I did my exercises,” said Andrew. “One time, we were doing pushups and he tried to teach me how to do them right. I still don’t do them right. I can’t go all the way. He was good at pushups, but I want to be super good.”
Andrew wants to enlist in the Marine Corps and become an infantryman, just like his father. When he is old enough, he wants to carry on what his father started. His mind is made up, and no one can change it — not even his mom.
More than three years after Javier’s death, Veronica started talking to another Marine, Junior Vasquez. Veronica and Junior had met a through Javier years before, but they were just acquaintances. One day, the two talked about each other’s memories of Javier while eating cheeseburgers at a mutual friend’s barbeque. They wouldn’t see each other again for months, but they messaged each other on occasion.
Veronica liked the attention. She also valued Junior’s understanding of her loss. He was sweet and not pushy, she joked. “He seemed like he genuinely cared,” but the two felt uneasy about being attracted to one another. This relationship was her first since Javier died. Even though going on a date felt disrespectful to her, a date did happen. The two had a quick dinner at a small restaurant. Then they went on another date, and they always met in secret — her kids couldn't know. She didn’t want to hurt them.
Junior, the Hollywood, Fla. native, has never regretted being with Veronica. He didn’t think he would ever develop feelings for her, and when he did, he didn’t think she’d feel the same. The relationship grew slowly with hours of phone calls and texts. Neither wanted to rush things.
Six months into their romance, Veronica knew she had to tell the kids. At first, none of them liked Junior. They felt as though he wanted to replace their father. They criticized Veronica when she saw Junior, but with time, he grew on the family. Junior taught Anthony how to ride a bicycle. Today, he is advising Alyssa about boys.
“I’m not dating boys, so I think my dad would be very happy,” said Alyssa of Javier. “I know Junior will teach me how to make sure a man treats me right. I know he will push me to do the right things even if I’m not really ready for them. He isn’t going to let me be lazy, and Papi wouldn’t have let me be that way either.”
When Veronica was pregnant, she was scared to tell the kids. Once she told them, they were ecstatic, she said. As soon as they decided on the baby’s name, Kaleb, all three children began referring to him as their stepbrother, and Javier, as Kaleb’s stepfather.
Telling Javier’s Marines was no less scary.
Many of the Marines had randomly met Junior at a local bar while he was on a date with Veronica. The Marines first saw Veronica, who wasn’t yet pregnant. After a string of hugs and small talk, they asked why she was there and why she looked upset.
“Some guy tried hitting on me while Junior was grabbing us a drink, but he was being very disrespectful, so when I told him no, he said some really awful and hurtful things,” she said.
When Junior came back with drinks, Veronica was noticeably shaken. She explained, and he confronted the man. He asked him to apologize.
Junior returned from the bathroom and was introduced to the Marines as Veronica’s boyfriend. He had just washed his hands after punching the man in the nose for disrespecting Veronica. She was relieved when the Marines echoed approvals. One Marine shook his hand and said, “You’re okay in my book.”
Some people took longer to adjust to Veronica’s new life. Bryan, the Marine who flew on the helicopter with Javier, struggled with Veronica’s new relationship and her pregnancy.
“I realized that it takes a unique and special type of man to love a woman like Veronica,” said Bryan. She was a widow and whomever she was with would also carry her loss. “We still wish [Javier] was here and that she was with him, but I like seeing her happy,” he added. “Life has to go on, and Javier would have wanted somebody like Junior to raise his kids if he couldn’t be there.”
Javier’s company commander, Captain O’Brien, knows why everyone involved has been able to heal as much as they have. He’s now a law student at the University of Richmond and recognizes how difficult Javier’s death had been on his men. Even so, they were supportive of Javier’s family and each other. “I’m proud of how the guys were drawn to being part of Veronica’s life,” he said. “Some widows don’t want anything to do with it because it’s too hard, which is fine, but she wanted to be a part of it and it helped everyone involved heal.”
While Veronica is able to put a smile on her face and is surrounded by Javier’s memories, she’s still mourning the loss and some days, has trouble getting out of bed. Memories of the day she found out about Javier’s death continue to haunt her. “My kids are the ones that see me freak out at the sound of the doorbell,” she wrote. “I force myself to be strong and smile and do what I need to make sure Javier is honored, but when it's time to go home or people leave, sadness sets in and my kids pay for it. It's not their fault, and it’s not fair to them.”
In her blog she explained why she never quit.
“Alyssa, Andrew and Anthony would be the only three people on the face of the earth that could convince me not to give up on life. Alyssa, Andrew, and Anthony were the only reason I chose not to give up and take my own life. They needed me. I was the only parent they had left,” she wrote. Her kids were the only reason she says she didn’t kill herself.
“To leave them would be extremely selfish and inconsiderate of me. I had no choice but to keep on going, for their sake. I made a decision that night. I chose life. I chose not to lay down and die with Javi, emotionally or mentally. I had no clue how to carry out or live out that choice in actions, but I was willing to try and figure it out.”
But that’s something that troubles her children, because they want her to be happy. Her daughter, Alyssa, also worries she won’t be happy.
“I won’t ever be the kind of happy that I was, or truly happy. I think that’s because I wish I could relive moments before he died,” said Alyssa. “I don’t view myself as damaged, but when God picked me up and put my heart back together, he didn’t put it back the same.”
Alyssa refuses to be consumed with sadness, she said. She remembers her “papi” as a generous and righteous man. He was the focus of a recent assignment for school, and she smiled as she read it.
“He was a good husband, friend, brother and most of all, a good father. Until one day, my world was crushed – ruined when I found out my dad passed away in Afghanistan,” she wrote.
On December 8, 2014, Junior and Veronica drove past rows of stick-built, single and two-story homes baring a façade of neutral vinyl planks and soft stone, just like they had done many times before. Children on bicycles sped past hundreds of matching mailboxes across what could be an endless racetrack. Neighbors waved hello and took a break from manicuring their lawns to laugh and joke. American flags flapped and crumped in the wind, and decorative iron streetlights made morning dew glisten amber.
As Veronica and Junior pulled onto Stone Court, they disappeared into a labyrinth of aging pines and other newborn homes. They brought their son, Kaleb, home for the first time.
Their red lacquered front door often bears a wreath of woven tree branches, white orchids, blue lilies and red roses. Beneath it, a photograph taken years ago is adorned with symbols of honor, courage and loss. Inside the foyer, a swirling script spells out “In Memoriam” below a portrait of a smiling man. His face is clean shaven, and his chestnut hair is tightly trimmed to his scalp. Piping lines his Marine dress uniform.
Years after his death, Javier still has a presence in their home.
* * *
Reporting: Thomas James Brennan
Photography and Videography: Matt Eich and Hyunsoo Leo Kim
Composer: Tyler Strickland
Print Editing: John Bennet, Andrea Murad, and Anna M. Hiatt
Video Production: Hyunsoo Leo Kim
Layout Review: Finbarr O'Reilly, Elena Boffetta, and Anna M. Hiatt