A general of taps and tears
Alfred Valenzuela is a veteran of wars, but also of grief - with a drive to make mourning families proud.
HOUSTON — At his 21 services since the war began, Maj. Gen. Alfred Valenzuela arrives early and emerges from his car in a crisp uniform and spit-shined shoes. Up green hills and down dirt paths, he walks alongside flag-draped coffins to support grieving families, to comfort, and to mourn.
"Adolfo was awesome," General Valenzuela said Wednesday morning, once taps had played and the family gathered under the Houston sun. "He died so that their children and our children can live in freedom. He died for the cause, and our loss is God's gain."
Valenzuela, a two-star general, has become a sort of unofficial consoler for a nation at war - a bemedaled military man who comforts families in death and, in his remarks, often reminds a nation of the honorable sacrifices these men and women made in life.
It's a duty he continues to volunteer for, two months shy of retirement, both because of a pulsating patriotism and a determination that these soldiers and families have a reception very different from the jeers that greeted those coming home from Vietnam.
His latest is the funeral of Adolfo Cesar Carballo, killed April 10 - his second week in a war zone - when a rocket-propelled grenade hit his Humvee in southern Iraq.
Friday morning, the loved ones gathered here are torn between pride in his bravery and grief at the killing in Iraq. What are we doing there, many ask themselves as they dab at tears and Valenzuela presents the Bronze Star and Purple Heart to Spc. Carballo's wife, Beatriz.
Valenzuela been doing this a lot lately: April has been the deadliest month for American troops since Vietnam, with 104 killed in action between April 1st and April 21st. Delaware's Dover Air Force Base, where all casualties arrive, has raised its staff from seven to 50 this month. And last week was the deadliest week so far. Texas - President Bush's home state - is second only to California in its losses.
Valenzuela's main job during a funeral, he says, is to be an ambassador for the US military: to tell mourners that their loved ones died for a purpose, to keep support strong for the soldiers in Iraq, and to make sure that families are reassured - as many were not during Vietnam.
"They need to feel that the public is supporting them," he says. "I'm not sure I saw that in the early '70s."
After growing up in San Antonio's impoverished west side, Valenzuela joined the Army in 1970 - partly out of patriotism and partly to keep out of trouble. While he never fought in Vietnam, his early views of service were shaped in that turbulent time.
He heard stories of his father and uncles returning as heroes from World War II, but watched boys of his own generation return from wars as pariahs, with fruit thrown at them on the streets and protesters along parade routes. He took away a firm sense of the importance of a unified front.
So today, after having fought in previous wars, Valenzuela sees his contribution to Operation Iraqi Freedom a little differently - in the form of funerals.
"I love doing it," he says later. "It's tough emotionally, but it's a privilege to meet the families and represent a grateful nation."
While all generals are called upon to officiate such services, Valenzuela never intended to spend so many days graveside - until that first one.
In fact, Spc. Rodrigo Gonzalez Garza was the first US soldier killed in the Iraq war. He died in a Feb. 25, 2003, training accident in Kuwait, shortly before combat began. His family moved from Mexico to San Antonio when he was a toddler, and Mexico is where he was buried.
Because Valenzuela is based in San Antonio and is one of five (out of some 300) US generals who speak Spanish, he was asked to preside.
There, he learned that Specialist Gonzalez's other three brothers are also in the Army. "And when they buried Rodrigo, the parents told me in no uncertain terms that their son died for his adopted country. They were proud, not bitter."
In fact, the general says, most families aren't bitter - especially once they learn how how important their loved ones were to the cause.
Back at Carballo's funeral, though, grief is still strong and understanding a little less evident. His uncle, for instance, wishes President Bush had a close relative fighting in the war so that he could better understand the families' terror.
"We're not bitter, but I would like for President Bush to reconsider what we're doing over there. These kids are flesh and bone, not just numbers or statistics," says Jose Angel Carballo, watching hundreds of friends and family make their way past the casket, shuffling, crying, reaching out to touch the coffin before they move on.
His friends remember Adolfo as shy and helpful, caring and dependable, a confidente and role model for many. He fell in love with weapons early and spent four years on Reagan High School's ROTC drill team. After graduation, he immediately enrolled in the Army, and planned on becoming a police officer when he got out.
Often, in letters and phone calls home, he would mention his fear of dying.
His story is not atypical of the others Valenzuela has heard. Most of those he's buried joined the Army for an education and knew the dangers they faced. Five were noncitizens. Seven were only sons and two, only daughters.
Valenzuela says it was a father's words at a July funeral in Eagle Pass, Texas that touched him the most. "This was his only daughter, and he said if he had another, he would gladly give her to us as well.
The two-star general is retiring in May after 33 years of service. In the meantime, he is finishing a book about Hispanic soldiers and is spending the last chapter on the those he has "brought home" from Iraq. Most of them have been Hispanic.
While a majority of the funerals he's attended have been in Texas, Valenzuela has gone as far as Puerto Rico for services. Already, he's gotten word that he'll be needed soon in Brownsville, McAllen, and Houston. He dismisses any criticism of the war and says it's no different from those he has fought in: with a defined purpose and moral justification.
"It frustrates me when people armchair-quarterback when they don't really know the whole story," he says finally. "We need the moral support of the public as strong as we've ever needed it. Men and women are dying for what they believe in, and the public needs to believe in that as well."