Josh Brodesky: Most important: Never forget soldier’s sacrifice
Maria Marin keeps this letter in her Bible. This way, she says, her son’s words are close to her heart. Again and again, she turns to this passage, holding the words inside like a deep breath.
“I need to have peace with what he was doing,” she said. “And that there was something greater than him that he was fighting for.”
Her son, Sgt. Martin A. Lugo, served six tours of duty. Two in Iraq. Four in Afghanistan. As a kid, he dreamed of becoming an Army Ranger. And as a man, he was leading a team of Rangers in Logar province, Afghanistan, when he was killed in action. He was 24.
There was life before Aug. 19, 2010, when the Army came to Marin’s home at 5 a.m. And there is life now.
“Everything is different,” she said. “The closest I can come to describe it is, there has been an amputation. When people ask, I say, ‘Well, if they amputated my arm, I don’t think I would ever stop missing it. But I would learn to adjust.’
“This amputation is more about my soul. And so I am learning every day to adjust and have faith. And when I think of him, I am encouraged to be happy and live a good life for him.”
We were sitting in the kitchen of her southwest-side home. Marin’s daughter, Leslie Bencic, sat a few feet away, mostly listening to her mother. But as we talked about the year after her brother was killed, she chimed in.
“At least for me that whole year, even up till now, it’s kind of a numb feeling,” Bencic said. “It’s kind of sinking in a little more as time passes because he was always gone on deployments and training.”
He enlisted after graduating from Tucson High Magnet School in 2004. It was his path. Around the age of 5 he was rocking a little camo shirt with a helicopter on it, telling everyone he wanted to be an Army Ranger.
By his senior year, he was at the cusp of his dream. That winter, Marin and Lugo were training for the P.F. Chang’s marathon in Phoenix, and they often talked on those long training runs about his enlistment.
“He was definitely sure,” Marin said. “It was like, ‘This is what I want to do. This is what I was called to do.’ But I am sure that as anyone who faces new things, you know, there are some fears and some concerns.”
Whatever he felt, he would find his way to Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, Ga., joining Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion and 75th Ranger Regiment.
When he came home for visits, the mother and son would sometimes talk about death. How could they not? They planned his funeral before his first deployment. Before his last tour, they planned his funeral again.
“That last visit home, we had gone to dinner, and once again he brought up the topic,” Marin said. “And he very matter of factly said, ‘I would rather do what I am doing, going back to Charlie Company, knowing that I could possibly die, than become an old man and not have done what I have done.’”
This certainty brings Marin peace.
So it does to her daughter, Bencic, who was so close to Lugo. They were close in age and shared many friends. During the interview, Bencic was wearing her brother’s shirt.
Marin’s husband, Esteban Oropeza, Lugo’s stepfather, has listened as Marin has talked endlessly about her son. Sometimes Marin takes long walks or revisits old emails from Lugo. She stays connected with her son’s closest friends.
Sometimes she turns to tunes. Lugo would fall in love with a song and hit repeat, driving everyone else crazy. Now those songs are like a balm. During the first year after his death, Marin would listen to Garth Brooks’ “The River” as she sat at the cemetery talking to her son. When she needed a laugh, she would play Sublime’s “Santeria.” Lugo used to drive her crazy with that one.
For months after her son died, Marin would blast a CD Lugo left in her car. As she drove to work at Wright Elementary School where she is the principal, she would crank the hard rock songs he left behind, especially “Send Me an Angel.”
“It was how I allowed him to motivate me to put one foot in front of the other as I struggled to find my way back to life,” she said in an email.
About six months before his last tour, Lugo fell in love with a young woman, Marlyn Gallego. She was one of his sister’s best friends. Lugo and Gallego became inseparable – always texting, always talking.
“She was definitely the love of his life,” Marin said. “And he had plans.”
Gallego died suddenly in February. She was 25. Family say it was from a broken heart. Marin called it another casualty of war. For love and honor, the family was granted special permission for her to be buried in the veterans section of Holy Hope Cemetery next to Lugo.
“Your life was not easy, you desired a little bit of peace and tranquility, and you finally found it in the end. Enjoy your one true love in eternity,” her obituary says.
This Memorial Day, Lugo’s family will gather with Gallego’s family and close friends.
They will make a trip to the cemetery. They will come to Marin’s home to celebrate their children’s lives. They will honor Lugo’s service to this country and the love Gallego and Lugo shared. Like the letter in Marin’s Bible, they will hold Lugo and Gallego close to their hearts.
“I am so proud of him,” Marin said. “I am proud of his effort and commitment to this country. But I think what I feel even more than that is just a real joy that he won’t be forgotten. I think the worst thing that can happen is someone gives their life for this country, and we forget them.”
But the letters you sent actually boosted my motivation. Well, you guys are all my motivation. I want to make you proud in the most honorable profession in the U.S. right now.
Well, that’s what they tell us. I think it’s true. Do you?
The 1st Sgt. told us today he is changing some things around right now because we are training for war. They said 99 percent of us will find ourselves in Iraq or Afghanistan – even if we go to the Rangers. So they said for us to pay attention to detail in everything we do. We’ll come home walking upright.
I don’t mind going if it means defending the country and your freedoms.
- Then-Pvt. Martin A. Lugo in a letter to his mom from boot camp, Oct. 13, 2004.
Sail your vessel till the river runs dry. Contact columnist Josh Brodesky at 573-4242 or email@example.com
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