Maria Duran's Endless Wait




 
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Boots
 
March 9th, 2008  
Team Infidel
 
 

Topic: Maria Duran's Endless Wait


New York Times
March 9, 2008 By Emily Brady
THE night last May when the soldiers came to her butter yellow house in Corona, Queens, with their solemn faces and formal dress, Maria del Rosario Duran was waiting for them.
A few hours earlier, as Ms. Duran was struggling through the front door with shopping bags in her arms, her daughter-in-law had phoned to warn her that the two soldiers would be coming. Their visit, Ms. Duran knew, must have to do with her 25-year-old son, Specialist Alex Jimenez, who was serving his second tour of duty in the dusty chaos of Iraq.
“Algo le pasó a mi hijo” — something has happened to my son — Ms. Duran repeated frantically to the 30 or so relatives, neighbors and friends who descended on her house on 37th Drive where her family has lived since coming from the Dominican Republic three decades ago.
The two soldiers, a young man and a young woman, wearing olive dress uniforms with gold buttons, made their way through the crowd and climbed the worn wooden stairs to the second-floor kitchen. There they delivered the news that would both torment Ms. Duran and sustain her with fleeting moments of hope during the months to come.
They did not tell her that her eldest son was dead — a message that, as the war approaches its fifth anniversary on March 19, has been delivered nearly 4,000 times to American soldiers’ families — but that he was missing.
In the blur of all that followed, from the television cameras to the politicians paying their respects, Ms. Duran would learn that she was one of several mothers in the Corona area to be touched by the war. But the losses of those other women were more absolute: Their sons were confirmed dead.
Among those mothers was Gladys Ciro, whose 25-year-old son, Marlon Bustamante, a father of three, died when a roadside bomb exploded near his Humvee on Feb. 1, 2006. There was Maria Gomez, whose 23-year-old son, Jose, was killed by a roadside bomb three months later, on April 28.
And there was Martha Clark, who befriended Ms. Duran after learning about Alex’s disappearance, and whose own son died four months later from yet another roadside bomb. All the soldiers were Latinos, the ethnic group that accounts for 27 of the 63 New Yorkers who have died in Iraq as of last Tuesday.
Ms. Duran and these three mothers, along with two others, were honored in December at a graduation ceremony in nearby Jackson Heights for New York Military Youth Cadets, a largely Latino group founded by a former United States Marine from Colombia named Alirio Orduña.
At the ceremony, the five Latino women whose sons had died in the war were presented with bouquets of yellow lilies and chrysanthemums. Ms. Duran was given a bouquet as well, but because her son was missing, not dead, the flowers were blue. “For hope,” said Mr. Orduña, who presented the bouquet.
A Quiet Homecoming
Ms. Duran is a small, round woman with cinnamon-colored skin, thick black hair and a husky voice. She has the dark, slanting eyes of her mother, Flerida Montán, the matriarch of a family of 10 children, whose photograph hangs above one of the plastic-covered couches in the living room.
It was shortly after her mother’s death in December 2006 that Ms. Duran last saw Alex. He had been granted leave to attend his grandmother’s funeral in the Dominican Republic and to make a brief visit to Queens.
But the serious individual with an intense gaze who came home was much changed from the one who had left for his second tour in Iraq only four months earlier. “I’ve never seen him like that,” said Boris Fermin, an older cousin. “He used to talk a lot, but he was really quiet.”
Ms. Duran also sensed a difference in her son. When he was leaving for the airport to return to Iraq, he hugged every one of the two dozen friends and relatives who had gathered in the family home to see him off. “He squeezed everyone so hard and so tight,” his mother said, “it took their breath away.”
On May 12, 2007, the night Specialist Jimenez disappeared, his two-Humvee convoy had been ambushed near Al Taqa, a village in the area south of Baghdad that is known as the Triangle of Death.
It was not his first dangerous encounter; during his first tour of duty, he had been injured by a grenade. But if the shaky video released three weeks later by insurgents is to be believed, the attack last May was chaotic and devastating. Explosions sounded, mixed with the firing of automatic weapons. Flames from burning Humvees lit up the night.
Four American soldiers and one Iraqi were killed during the attack and three American soldiers were captured: Specialist Jimenez, Pvt. Byron Fouty, 19, of Waterford, Mich., and Pfc. Joseph Anzack, 20, of Torrance, Calif.
Eleven days later, Private Anzack’s body was found in the Euphrates River. But despite intensive searches involving 4,000 American soldiers, the military has been unable to locate either Specialist Jimenez or Private Fouty. They are two of only four soldiers currently classified by the Department of Defense as “missing-captured.” Soldiers can remain in that category until they reappear, their bodies are found, or the secretary of the Army or the adjutant general declares them dead.
In the video of the attack in May, which was released by the Islamic State of Iraq, a Sunni insurgent group with links to Al Qaeda in Iraq, both Specialist Jimenez’s and Private Fouty’s ID cards are shown, along with what appear to be their credit cards and various personal belongings. Written in Arabic above the images of the IDs are the words “Bush is the reason for the loss of your prisoners.”
In October, Specialist Jimenez’s machine gun was found in a weapons cache in a house seven miles from the ambush. On Christmas Eve and on Christmas, two men who authorities believe may be linked to his capture were arrested in Iraq.
Despite these ominous signs, Ms. Duran is optimistic. “I still have hope,” she said one day not long ago, seated in her tiny kitchen. She often says that; the words are her mantra.
A Soldier From the Start
Alex Ramón Jimenez was born in Flushing on April 4, 1982, and baptized at Our Lady of Sorrows in Corona, a Roman Catholic church where his mother still worships. Ms. Duran, now a home health aide, had worked as an accountant in the Dominican Republic; Alex’s father, a Dominican named Ramón Jimenez, works in construction.
Like his parents, the son followed the winding path of so many who straddle two worlds. His father’s search for work took the family from Queens to Lawrence, Mass., a city near Boston. Along the way, two more sons were born: Andy, who is 20, and Bryant, 16.
The family eventually returned to the Dominican Republic, to Navarrete, the parents’ hometown. In 1997, the father moved back to Lawrence, and the mother stayed in Navarrete with her sons. The couple officially separated in 2003, and at Alex’s suggestion, Mrs. Duran and the boys returned to Queens that year.
As a boy, Alex played regularly with little green plastic soldiers and said he wanted to join the military. As an adolescent, he composed rap songs with a cousin, Augustin Bisono; in December, Mr. Bisono composed a melancholy hip-hop song about Alex with the words “Vuelve. Te queremos. Vuelve. Te esperamos” (“Come back. We love you. Come back. We’re waiting for you”). Whenever the song is played on the stereo in Ms. Duran’s living room, it brings tears to the eyes of the women in the family.
As a teenager, the would-be soldier discovered weight lifting. Ms. Duran still chuckles when recalling the time her son and a nephew of hers made weights using a metal bar and two cans of powdered milk that they had filled with concrete. It was a hobby that stuck: Photographs taken in Iraq show Alex, dressed in camouflage, pumping a barbell.
After her son graduated from high school in the Dominican Republic, Ms. Duran tried to persuade him to go to college, but he held fast to his childhood dream of joining the military. On June 22, 2002, he enlisted in the United States Army.
To soothe his mother’s fears, Alex once insisted that she sit with him and watch a television program filled with sturdy soldiers standing at attention. “It’s not bad, Mami,” he said to her.
But she would not sit in the chair next to him. “I don’t like this,” she explained. “I want you to have a different career.”
A Friend’s Anguish
It was a Sunday afternoon in June, a few weeks after the two soldiers in olive uniforms had visited her house. Ms. Duran was sitting on the front steps with her older sister Milady when Martha Clark walked up and presented her with a bouquet of white roses.
Ms. Clark had learned about Specialist Jimenez’s disappearance on a Spanish-language television show, and she wanted to show his mother that she understood what she was going through.
“I wanted to bring her flowers and share this with her,” Ms. Clark remembers thinking. The two women spent the afternoon talking about their boys, and a friendship blossomed.
A few months later, Ms. Clark joined her friend in grief. This time, the soldiers in the olive uniforms came to her house in Jackson Heights to tell her that her only child, Specialist Jonathan Rivadeneira, 22, had been killed by a roadside bomb north of Baghdad. He was on his first tour as an Army medic.
Specialist Rivadeneira was born to Colombian parents in Queens Hospital Center in Jamaica and grew up in Jackson Heights. Ms. Clark was a single parent — her husband had moved back to Colombia when Jonathan was a year old — and she worked as a housekeeper to support herself and her son. Jonathan attended local elementary and middle schools, and then a military high school in Pennsylvania because Ms. Clark worried about the absence of a father in her son’s life and wanted him to learn discipline.
Like Alex Jimenez, Jonathan Rivadeneira joined the military shortly after high school.
“He thought he would have more opportunities and free schooling with the Army,” Ms. Clark said.
Like Ms. Duran, she tried to talk her son out of enlisting by pointing out that he might be sent to Iraq. But he was adamant. “Mami, don’t worry, they’re not going to send me to war,” he told her. When he graduated from boot camp, Ms. Clark was so upset that she refused to attend the ceremony.
“I worked so hard so that he had it all,” she said. “Everything was for him.”
After Ms. Clark’s son was killed, her friendship with Ms. Duran became a source of solace. Ms. Duran was the first person she called after learning the tragic news, and Ms. Duran let Ms. Clark use the patio of her house to hold a novena for the dead, a nine-day-long Catholic recitation of prayers that brought a stream of visitors. “She is like my sister,” Ms. Clark said.
For Ms. Duran, too, the friendship has become a source of strength. “She tells me her hope is gone,” she said, “but that I should hold on.”
Still, Ms. Clark sometimes wonders whose grief is more intense.
“I think it’s worse for her,” Ms. Clark said. “I have a gravestone. I know where my son is. She doesn’t know if he’s alive or dead. I can’t imagine laying my head on my pillow every night and thinking about my son, not knowing if he’s being tortured, if he’ll ever come home.”
Ms. Clark certainly never forced herself to watch the beheading of an American soldier on an Internet video, just to make sure it wasn’t her son, as Ms. Duran once did. But Ms. Clark knows that her own sorrow is also overwhelming. “I’m trying to learn how to live with this pain,” she said. “But it’s just so huge.”
***
These days, three flags hang from the front of the yellow house on 37th Drive: American, Dominican and the black flag of the prisoner of war or missing in action. It does not help Ms. Duran’s pain that, for reasons she declined to discuss, she is estranged from her son’s wife, a Dominican three years his junior whom he married in 2004.
Inside the house, an enormous black-and-white photograph of Specialist Jimenez in his Army uniform dominates the wall above the dining room table. Next to the kitchen are metal shelves that Ms. Duran has turned into an altar, filling them with photos, religious figurines and a red candle that burns day and night. On the top shelf sits a vase filled with the blue flowers, now withered, that Ms. Duran received the day the six Latino mothers were honored.
On a Saturday afternoon not long ago, Ms. Duran stood by the altar and held one of the figurines, a small, robed figure with outstretched arms. It was St. Anthony, the patron saint of lost things and missing persons. The statue was a gift from an Ecuadorean neighbor who told Ms. Duran that the statue normally holds the baby Jesus in his arms. The neighbor has promised to keep the baby until Ms. Duran’s son returns.