Like many Americans, San Juanita Anguiano didn’t know the true meaning of Memorial Day while growing up.
It was never really discussed while she was a child, so she thought it was just another day off from work, a holiday and a time to barbecue and have fun. But she did know it had something to do with soldiers.
This all changed 16 years ago when her eldest and only son U.S. Army Sgt. Edward J. Anguiano became one of the Rio Grande Valley’s first casualties in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.
“I see it very different now. For me it is not a holiday. I don’t go the Island and celebrate. I go to the cemetery to be there where my son is laid.”
Sgt. Anguiano 24, a Brownsville native, was assigned to 3rd Combat Support Battalion, Fort Stewart, Ga. He was traveling with the Fort Bliss-based 507th Maintenance Company in Iraq when the six vehicle convoy came under attack by enemy forces on March 23, 2003. He was first reported missing. It was one month later on April 24 that his remains were recovered. He was killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Since that heartbreaking day that changed San Juanita’s life and that of her family, she now pays tribute to not only her son but all other troops that were killed in the war each Memorial Day.
“It’s very hard. Some of these mothers don’t want to talk about and don’t want to read about it because it’s very hard. It’s very painful,” San Juanita said. “I had mothers coming over to my house and telling me ‘how could you handle it?’”
Every year she participates in the annual Silent March held on Memorial Day in Brownsville. She carries a poster that not only has the photo of her son on it, but other Rio Grande Valley service members who also died in the wars. The poster was made for her and she added the photos of Marine Private First Class Juan G. Garza of San Benito, Army Private First Class Rey David Cuervo of Laguna Vista, and two other service members.
She will participate in today’s march and wants everyone to “At least take a moment to honor those young ones that didn’t come home. They died in a strange country without a loved one besides them,” she said through tears. “I think that when they were being there, that they were thinking about their loved ones back home.”
“The hurt is still there” especially every Memorial Day, San Juanita said.
On the front door of her Los Fresnos home is a Gold Star Flag that is provided to Gold Star families, or relatives of U.S. military members who have been killed in combat or in support of certain military activites.
Wearing a white T-shirt with a photo of Edward in his Army uniform, San Juanita reflects how that war changed her life forever. Edward was in his third year in the service and he had one more year to fulfill. After that, she said Edward wanted to join the U.S. Coast Guard so he could help rescue people.
She remembers the last phone call she received from her son. It was at about 3 a.m. He wanted to tell her that he was heading out to Iraq. All troops were told to contact their family.
“I got nervous. I told him to be just very careful, and that is when I really got scared,” she said. “He said ‘Take care of yourself Mom.’ And I said ‘No, you are coming back.’ I told him ‘I love you. I love you so much and God protect you.’”
That was her final conversation with her son.
Edward spent a lot of time at South Padre Island while growing up and would watch how the Coast Guard would go out with their rescue boats and rescue people. That’s why he wanted to join the federal agency.
San Juanita remembered a time when Edward jumped in to action to help rescue a couple of men who were trapped inside a car that had plunged into a ditch near Los Fresnos.
There was smell of gas all around and no one wanted to jump in and try to save the men for fear the vehicle would explode. She pleaded with her son not to risk his life, but he didn’t listen. He jumped down to the ditch and forced the car door open and started to drag out one of the passengers. This is when the others jumped in.
San Juanita said that was the type of man her son was. He always wanted to help others.
“He was just not afraid. He just loved life. He put everyone else before him,” she said.
Inside her Los Fresnos home in the den area are photos and memorabilia honoring her son. In a glass cabinet are several pictures of Edward dressed in his Army fatigues, medals, POW bands, a signed letter from then President George W. Bush and a crucifix.
Edward’s dress uniform is carefully hung nearby. There’s a small table with newspaper articles, magazines, small American flags, a plaque and more photos of him. One is a watercolor portrait someone sent to San Juanita.
The fallen soldier’s mother admits there are days it’s hard to look at the photos of her son. The tears, the pain and the emptiness all come at once. A few years ago she took down the display honoring her son. It was more than she could take. She didn’t want anything doing with the military inside her home. “Even the flag” I took it down. “I didn’t want to see anything with red, white and blue.”
A few days passed and she put everything back up because she knew it was something Edward would want her to do to remind herself he was always around.
“It’s been a tough road for me. But I feel like he’s here, but I cannot see him, but somehow he is here” with me, she said.
“It’s been harder on her than any other member of our family,” said Jennifer, Edward’s sister.
San Juanita unknowingly would end up becoming one of the “counselors” along with Mary Ann Garza, the mother of Juan Garza, that grieving mothers, who also lost sons in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, would reach out to in their time of grief.
According to the U.S. Department of Defense, as of May 24, 3,481 U.S. troops were killed in action in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“I just want the wars to stop. I don’t want any mother to go through what I am going through,” San Juanita said.