MISSION — For Army Pfc. Joel Corona’s family, Thursday was a day they thought would never come.
The Pharr native was believed to be killed on Nov. 8, 1970, while serving in Vietnam. His body was never recovered, but his family always held onto hope.
A final salute was held for Corona on Thursday at the Rio Grande Valley State Veterans Cemetery, 50 years after he was declared dead while serving his country during an unpopular war that divided the country at that time.
The salute was especially emotional for the family and dozens of people who attended given that Corona had never received a proper memorial
Saul Corona, Joel’s twin, said that the years following his brother’s death was a dark period for his family. But on Thursday, he was joyful.
“The ceremony, the veterans here, everyone pitching in to make this a memorable day, all my compadres and family members — I am happy. I am elated,” Saul, 70, said.
Saul confided in the person who would later become his wife, Maria Corona, a family friend at that time, after Joel’s death. She said that Saul called her every day for two months after it was announced.
For Maria, Thursday’s salute was a long time coming.
“It’s almost a dream come true, of course a dream come true would be that he came back alive and well, but this is more than we ever expected,” she said. “We never thought this would happen.”
Waving tall at the entrance of the cemetery that morning was a large American flag at half-mast, provided by the Mission Fire Department. Another half-mast flag stands at the center of the cemetery, where the names of more than 7,000 fallen Valley heroes are displayed.
Now, Joel’s name is engraved there.
Veterans of different ranks and branches attended the event, all holding a salute as Joel’s family was escorted to their seats. Only the sound of waving flags could be heard when Joel’s empty casket was carried out and positioned in front of two framed photos of him, and two patriotic wreaths.
As a member of the VFW 8788 post led the group in prayer, some attendees were seen holding the event’s pamphlet, displaying a photo of Joel, to their heart.
Saul was given a folded flag, a Patriot Guard medallion, and a cross that a priest of St. Jude Catholic Church poured holy water on.
Eva Garza-Wilson was seen wiping away tears during the ceremony. Also a close friend with Saul, Joel was her classmate for a couple years in Roma High School.
“He was very bubbly, very energetic,” Garza-Wilson, 69, said. “He was a very lovely person to be friends with. Since he was new in school, he was very popular. He got along with everybody.”
Though Joel graduated from Pharr-San Juan-Alamo High School and only knew Garza-Wilson for a few years, she said that she will never forget him.
She dedicated her time toward giving him as much recognition as she could foster. For several Pharr Veterans Day parades, she walked with a large banner showcasing a photo of Joel. She also approached the city several times, asking for a proper memorial of her former classmate.
So, Thursday morning meant a lot to her.
“I am thrilled,” Garza-Wilson said. “I prayed this morning and told Joel: ‘I hope you are happy. I hope you are seeing this, because it has been many years.’
“I am sure he is happy, definitely.”
After the ceremony, congregates met at the Mission Events Center where a wreath was laid in front of the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall. The scaled replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington lists all 58,220 names of veterans. Joel’s is on the 45th line of the sixth panel.
Before leaving the cemetery, Alonzo Alvarez Jr., Joel’s cousin, took a moment in front of the casket to remember him.
“He was an ever-loving young man,” Alvarez, 76, said. “We grew up together, to me he was my brother.”
He added that Joel loved to dance and care for his family’s ranch in Rio Grande City. He chucked recalling how Joel once brought one of their horses to their home in Pharr.
Alvarez served in Vietnam for two years and came back home in January 1970, three months before Joel left on his tour.
“ Me, his father and grandfather were his role model, and nobody would touch him,” he said through tears. “He was protected by us.”
Joel is also honored at Liberty Middle School in Pharr. There, his name is engraved on a replica Statue of Liberty at the front of the school, and one of the school’s gymnasiums was named after him last year.
Saul added that Thursday was special for him because he also considered it a family reunion.
He posed in front of the Vietnam Traveling Wall with his granddaughters, while their father, Rex Costley, took the photo.
After taking the shot, he told his daughters, “You made grandpa’s day.”