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.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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"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."