During the month of January (perhaps all of 2007) I am participating in a special fast. As part of Tanker Brothers mission, I am dedicating today’s fast to our Wounded Warriors.
Those with wounds on the inside. Praying for mental peace for those who are dealing with the monster PTSD.
Fasting for strength for the family members, who are working diligently to hold their families together.
Fasting for comfort for those left behind..
Fasting for the children who are reaching out for their Mommies and Daddies, not understanding the pain in their parents eyes.
DMN Texan of the Year: Roy Velez
God Bless Roy!!!
He lost one son in Iraq, the other in Afghanistan – but it has only made him a fortress for others:
LUBBOCK, Texas – It happens almost daily. A stranger reaches out to comfort Roy Velez, unintended symbol of unspeakable loss and grief. Today it’s a woman who approaches as he’s halfway through breakfast at Montelongo’s Mexican restaurant.
“My brother told me about you and your sons,” she says, extending her hand.
He takes her small hand between his – this sturdy man who has buried two boys who went off to war – and listens gently as her own story of sorrow spills forth. Her 8-year-old daughter, a traffic accident, her son at the wheel.
As waiters bustle about with trays of huevos rancheros and barbacoa plates, Mr. Velez does what he does best: offers up a soft prayer to help this mother endure her emptiness.
Strangers learn about Mr. Velez from newspapers and TV. They come to him to share their gratitude or their grief. They come to thank him and console him, tearfully, for his family’s sacrifice.
And in Roy Velez, they find their own comforter.
This is how Mr. Velez chooses to live after losing two sons in two years, not riven with anger or paralyzed with sadness. But as someone ready for those who might slip into the darkness of despair.
For his strength for others, compassion and grace – and for serving as inspiration for anyone who knows his story – Mr. Velez is the 2006 Dallas Morning News Texan of the Year.
It’s perhaps unlikely recognition for this 47-year-old ex-cop, who admits to a youth of hard knocks and to putting his “heart in a jar” after a broken marriage. He was at a point where he didn’t believe in love. Today, he exemplifies it.
His tears haven’t stopped flowing, and his grief is always close to the surface. That pain, though, is something he says brings him closer to the Almighty.
Quoting English evangelist Smith Wigglesworth, Mr. Velez says, “Great man of God, you’ll never know the depth of God until you’ve been broken.”
For Roy Velez, there’s no escaping the heartache of losing Andrew (in foreground photo) and Freddy. Yet, the Lubbock man has found compassion and grace to help others grieve.
He’ll be the first to admit, his heart is broken. He holds on to the memories of his two boys tightly – Freddy, who died in Iraq, and Andrew, who died in Afghanistan.
“I feel the boys are inside me,” he says quietly, “their heart, their spirit, their love, their courage and, most of all, their freedom.”
Free of war.
Free of fear.
Free of pain.
This day at Montelongo’s, he invokes his boys to help lift up the grieving mother who is always searching for her lost child in other little girls.
“I can guarantee you your daughter has a couple of great soldiers watching over her,” he says, pressing the woman’s hand between his.
“She’s in the company of two great men.”
Those who know him say Roy is a walking Bible. Spend a couple of days with him and you’ll hear nonstop conversation about God. With strangers, co-workers, friends and family – the subject is faith and the healing power of it.
He comes to life when he talks about God. Give him a microphone, and he’ll give you a two-hour sermon.
People who knew him 30 years ago on the south side of Lubbock might be surprised by Mr. Velez today: a churchman who has spent the last 13 years building a family ministry, preaching and singing at any church that will have him.
But back in his youth, he was cabezudo, hard-headed, a rebellious young man always up for a party. And never one to walk away from a fight. At 17, days after graduating from high school, he and his sweetheart eloped. They had their first child a year later and two more by the time he was 23.
Working long hours as a rookie cop in the West Texas crossroads of Tahoka, he watched as his marriage disintegrated and his wife turned her back on their family.
Once, Andrew, the youngest, spent days in intensive care with a head injury after jumping off the toilet lid pretending to be Super Man; his mother never visited. When Andrew was 3, she ditched all three children in the parking lot of a Town & Country convenience store.
The next year was the toughest. Mr. Velez and his three children moved into his parents’ two-room shack in Lubbock, where they shared the back bedroom and a lopsided toilet.
At night, he put on his uniform and went to work as a cop. An arrogant cop.
“I had a badge and attitude,” he recalls.
At home, his daughter, Monica, then 7, made sure the boys brushed their teeth and went to bed early.
Overwhelmed with the prospect of raising three kids alone, Mr. Velez often turned to God. He wanted a wife who shared his faith but doubted any woman would want a man with three kids. One night, out in the middle of a cotton field near their home, Mr. Velez tearfully vowed that he would never love anyone again. He would dedicate his life to his children.
“I put my heart in a jar, and I placed it on top of the closet, away from everyone’s reach,” recalls Mr. Velez.
But God had other plans.
It wasn’t long before he met Carmen, a mother of two with wounds of her own. After 14 years of marriage, she had the courage to leave an abusive husband. The last thing Carmen wanted was another man.
But the relationship deepened.
“I remember one day, not long after we started dating, we were in the car coming back from the mall, and Andrew tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Can I call you Mommy?’.” recalls Ms. Velez. “I’m going, ‘Hmmm … I, I guess.’ What do you tell a 4-year-old?”
After two years of dating, a justice of the peace married the couple at City Hall, with only Andrew and Freddy at their side.
Those two boys were inseparable. They often played soldiers in the sprawling cotton fields around their house, where subdivisions and office buildings now stand.
After two decades patrolling the streets, and at the boys’ urging – “Daddy, you’re getting too slow” – Mr. Velez went back to college for his degree and, after graduation, retired from the Police Department. Today he’s a regional branch manager for a medical equipment company.
Sometimes while Mr. Velez is driving around Lubbock, he’ll recapture a memory: Freddy clumsily dancing merengue in the kitchen; Andrew, on the phone from his Army tours abroad, saying “Roger out, Dad,” before hanging up.
Then the tears come, and come.
When the weight is unbearable, Mr. Velez turns to the Book of Proverbs, Chapter 3, Verses 5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.”
So he trusts. With all his heart.
More than 3,000 troops have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Shattered mothers and fathers, spouses and children continue to bury their loved ones. Hometown news reports detail the grim homecomings. Long after names and faces fade from memory for most of us, family members still weep, still wonder, still lie awake at night. They must learn to carry around a gnawing emptiness. They eventually learn that the pain never leaves for good, just comes and goes.
And always, those final memories linger.
Freddy, the quiet one, would call from his Army unit in Iraq. Forbidden to talk about his deployment, he’d say, cryptically, “I’m tired,” or “I hate war,” or “Pray for me, Daddy.”
Just days before he died, Freddy sent an e-mail thanking his parents for their encouragement and asking them to pray. He was preparing for another mission, but he was ready. He wrote:
I’ve gone to God, ask him for his strength of a warrior and guidance. … I’ve felt a real difference lately. … I have on the full armor of God … and march on to battle to destroy my enemies. If God is for us who can be against?
Freddy’s final battle was northwest of Fallujah, where his unit was ordered to clear out an insurgent stronghold. Five days into the mission, he lay dead, his body pierced by several bullets.
Freddy was awarded two Purple Hearts and Bronze and Silver stars.
In his grief, his father demanded answers. “Why, God? Why? You said you’d take care of him.”
He recalls, “God said to me: ‘I did, I did take care of him. You put them in my hands. He’s here. Where would you rather have him? At war?’.”
Today, Mr. Velez resists harboring bitterness and anger at his son’s killers.
“I don’t hate the guy who killed Fred in the battlefield, because the Bible says if you know God you know love,” says Mr. Velez.
Freddy’s death claimed another casualty – his younger brother’s emotional well-being. Andrew locked up after identifying Freddy’s remains in Iraq, before escorting his big brother home.
“I didn’t see the bullet holes, the cave in Freddy’s chest,” says Mr. Velez. “But Andrew did.”
The thought makes Mr. Velez cry, that his 20-year-old son “saw his brother torn apart.”
“I can only imagine the horror that he kept inside him when they unzipped the body,” he says, in almost a whisper.
“What America sees when they come home,” Mr. Velez says, “is a body that has been mended, that has been covered up by makeup. We see what our children used to look like. But Andrew, he saw his brother the way he came from war.”
Afterward, in Lubbock, Andrew would not talk about it. He’d change the subject, tell his father: “Fred’s OK, Dad. Be a man.”
Freddy’s death was only part of Andrew’s anguish. He was tormented by the hideous echoes of combat. His marriage was failing, and he sat helplessly, half a world a way, in Afghanistan.
The depth of his desperation became horribly clear in July when he shot himself in the mouth with an automatic weapon.
Mr. Velez knows there are those who whisper, “Look at him, a minister – and his son committed suicide.”
“People have asked me: ‘You’re a Christian. How can you say your son came to heaven?’.” says Mr. Velez.
But he trusts that God didn’t condemn a distraught young soldier who buckled under his burden.
Andrew was fatally wounded in his own way. A casualty of war.
Another restaurant. Another stranger.
A man walks up at Cheddar’s after he recognizes Mr. Velez from a television interview. He stops by the table just to say thanks.
“When I saw you on TV, my heart just went out for you and your family,” the man says. “If there is anything you all need, our door is open.”
“Just keep us in your prayers,” Mr. Velez tells him.
Prayer. It’s the way each day starts for Roy Velez. Before the first glow of sun on the horizon, he’s already in Freddy’s old room, where they keep the boys’ military medals, the flags, still folded since the funerals, the photos and the hundreds of letters and e-mails. He sometimes cries. He always prays.
He prays for his children and those of others he’s met. He prays for strangers, the sick and the sad. He prays for “everybody and anybody,” especially those soldiers still on the battlefield.
Had he lost only one son, Ms. Velez doubts the national spotlight would have focused on their family in Lubbock. But losing two sons makes the Velez family the ultimate symbol of the terrible cost of war.
So reporters, seeking interviews in English and Spanish, flock here. When Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld resigned, they showed up at his doorstep. When Mr. Velez was appointed chairman of the Lubbock Fallen Heroes Fund, the calls started again.
Reporters constantly call to ask for his thoughts on the war.
We can’t leave now, he tells them.
“It’s not about President Bush; it’s not about being a Democrat or Republican. It’s about standing behind a country that we love so much,” he says.
“I know it has cost us a lot of lives, including my two sons, and it has taken a toll on America, but we can’t walk away from this war until we’re finished.”
With each interview, the stack of e-mails and letters grows. Many come from parents of soldiers sharing their fears or grief. Others come from widows of war or anyone who wants to share a story of loss. Well-wishers send $10 and $20 checks and offers of more. Flags, crosses, pillows and blankets have arrived in the mail.
A woman writes to tell him that she’s certain her daughter prepared casualty reports for Freddy’s unit. She tells them Andrew and Freddy “did not die in vain, and that they will live as long as we remember.”
The correspondence comes from throughout Texas, Iowa, New York and dozens of other states the boys never visited. Words of condolence come from Germany, Japan, even China.
One man from Virginia wrote:
Dear Roy and Carmen,
I don’t know why I’m writing this, because I hardly ever write letters. I just needed to tell you how much I admire you … much more than anyone whom I have ever met and ever read about. …
Please do this for me, and I will pray for you every morning and every night for the rest of the year. Please help me to believe that the courage that you both possess is something greater and more beautiful than anything that I’ve ever known. Please help me believe that Jesus lives with your sons in my spirit, so that it might help me to become a better person – maybe a person who is at least half the man each of your sons are.
Sifting through boxes of handwritten cards, letters, CDs and dozens of books, mostly on faith and grief, Mr. Velez is reassured that “God’s glory is on the move.”
It comforts him to know that his two sons – two boys from West Texas – are part of a worldwide chain of prayer, prayers that he hopes will continue long after this war is over and the last soldiers come home.
Freddy was known for his big heart, so much compassion. He was easy to get along with, the kind of guy you picture with a grin on his face.
He spent most of his years at Lubbock’s Estacado High School thinking about a career in medicine. For a school paper, he once wrote that he wanted “to help people and help in the healing process of the human body to prevent death.”
A well-rounded student, Freddy held on to a spot in the top 10 percent of his graduating class, despite juggling varsity football, wrestling and other sports and short internships at a nursing home and a hospital.
He had set his sights on Texas Tech until a military recruiter showed up at school and his plans took a detour: He decided to join the Army, a move that would help pay for college. After high school graduation in 2000, he was off to military service.
Sept. 11, 2001, changed everything. His career-boosting, education-furthering Army hitch would soon mean war. So he exchanged wedding vows with his longtime sweetheart, Nikki, and shipped out to Iraq.
Freddy believed in his mission, often telling his father that most Americans only heard and saw the bad news, but what they didn’t see were children who could now go to school, families who now had access to water, and the Iraqis who were grateful for their freedom.
Army life suited the young soldier. Assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 7th Calvary Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, Freddy made friends easily. His buddies ribbed him, calling him “Fat Kid” because the big-framed soldier took up the most space in the cramped Bradley Fighting Vehicle. Always a good sport, Freddy laughed it off.
In November 2004, Freddy went on his last mission, to clear insurgents who were holed up near Fallujah. Freddy’s eight-man unit was searching a suspicious, two-story house, when the first soldiers who went in came under attack.
A journalist embedded with the unit described it as chaotic:
“Different members of the squad were now wounded, some lying on top of each other, some still standing and fighting, others diving for cover.”
Freddy was one of the soldiers standing and firing into the house, emptying his magazine at the enemy before pausing to reload. When his squad members looked back, “he was facedown on the ground, motionless.”
He was 23.
Andrew Velez was the willful one, the more rambunctious of the two brothers. He was lean, athletic and fearless. He had no choice but to grow up fast.
At 16, and after his girlfriend, Veronica, got pregnant, he moved in with her family against his parents’ wishes. Andrew wasn’t one to shy away from responsibilities, even if it meant dropping out of high school and getting a job.
He had planned on a career in law enforcement, just like his father. But in 2002, shortly after getting his GED, Andrew enlisted in the Army, just like his big brother. By then talk of war had heated up, but that didn’t dissuade him.
The following year he was deployed to Iraq. Andrew, more forthcoming than his older brother about the war, would talk about his close calls and fighting insurgents not much younger than he. “Shooting at kids,” he called it. In Afghanistan, his unit – Corps Support Battalion, Theater Support Command, Fort Irwin, Calif. – searched for the trail of Osama bin Laden.
But while the Army specialist was a half-world away, his mind was closer to home, where he now had three children – Jasmine Jade, 5; Jordan Davis, 3; and Jacob Andrew, 2.
His brother’s death meant he was the family’s sole surviving son and could have opted out of combat. But he didn’t. Though his father begged him not to return to war, Andrew wanted to finish the job his brother couldn’t and even re-enlisted.
In an e-mail to his sister, Monica, Andrew said he wanted to keep fighting like Freddy had: “That is what I am going to do until I die just like him cause I want to be one day as strong as him just like he wanted to be strong like Daddy.”
But the war and his brother’s death took a toll. Haunted by flashbacks and prone to emotional breakdowns, he couldn’t shake the war while visiting Lubbock between deployments. One time, he held his wife hostage in a room. Another time, at 3 in the morning, Andrew stood in the alley, his father says, frantically yelling: “Get down! Get down! The Hajjis are coming! I’m not going to die. I’m going home. I’m going home to my babies.”
Andrew Velez ended his torment in July while in Afghanistan. He put an M249 automatic rifle in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
He was 22.
(article from Dallas Morning News) http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/latestnews/stories/123106dneditoy1.5a61cb88.html