Married Into The Army

In Early 2008 I met SGT. Diego Rivera, on RnR during his first year long tour in Afghanistan. We met at a local bar on Broadway Ave, where most kids our age hung out. We started talking, and to this day he would still say I flashed him that night at the bar, but I don’t recall that! I was recently post-op from breast augmentation though, so he could be right. That night we hung out until the sun came up. The next day we played laser tag and hung out at the coffee shop until he had to leave back to catch a flight. We continued to talk and e-mail during the rest of his deployment. When he came back to Iowa, we began dating, it was off and on again for quite some time. Plus I think to Diego, nothing in life was ever permanent, but none the less….we married on May 24th 2010. When we married, it wasn’t the once-in-a-lifetime love I had waited for, but I loved him. We married at the Justice of the Peace in Evergreen, with plans for a wedding on June 23nd. We ended our romantic relationship shortly after our marriage began. He told me about meeting his now fiancé Cheyenne on his trip home. He left July 8th, 2010, for another year long tour in Afghanistan. We had decided that we would wait until he returned to Evergreen to get a divorce. During his time overseas we spoke and kept the lines open. Since we were married, he told me he would take responsibility for me and give me spousal support. It was during his time there that I let him go. I had no choice, I moved on with my life. I had also met the man of my dreams, Denver, and am more in love than I could've ever dreamed. But Diego will always be in my heart, he holds a special place.
On July 6th  2012 we spoke for the last time.
I called, texted and emailed Diego after the 21st of July. I had no response. This was very out of the ordinary for us. Every time I called or tried to contact him, he responded without delay. On August 1st the money didn’t go into my account for the first time in over 2 years. I knew something was wrong. At the time I wasn’t sure how to find him in Oregon. So I called the information center at Fort Riverdale on August 3rd, where they found his company by his social security number I had on our paper work. So I called Fort Buckley, and they connected me to Charlie Company, where I had to leave a voicemail. On the voicemail I told them who I was, and I asked for help finding my husband to sign more paper work for me. Later that day my phone call was returned. When I answered, the man on the other line introduced himself as Capt Louis. He then began to ask me questions as to who I was, how I knew Diego, where I lived, and how long we had been married. He told me he had worked with Diego for a while but had no information on him ever being married, and neither did the army… I told him this didn’t surprise me, we were in the middle of divorcing before he left Iowa. I was aware of Cheyenne, and I didn’t want to cause problems. I just wanted to speak to him. I just wanted to know if he was out in the field for training or if he had moved again. He paused. I heard a crack in his voice as he told me, “Ms LaPaz, I’m sorry to say this but there has been an accident.” An accident? He said ”there was an accident at his friends house, with a hand gun, and he didn’t survive.” He told me how sorry he was to have to tell me that way, but he was going to make some phone calls and get back to me. I know there was about 10 minutes more of that conversation but I was in such shock that I can’t remember a word of it. No phone call came that night. My boyfriend, Denver, offered more comfort and compassion that night than he needed to, given it was my soon to be ex-husband I was crying for. The next morning I called Capt Louis. He said he would try to have someone call me. But still no phone call. The next four days were really hard, I had so many questions, and I was so scared. Denver sat with me and did everything he could for me. But I needed answers.
Finally, Tuesday, August 10th at about 7:30 am my phone alert tells me I have a friend request on Facebook. It was from Dakota, Diego's sister. I told her to call me and gave her my cell number. She called me about 3 minutes later. The shock, and confusion in her voice and questions were not a surprise to me. I explained to her how we came to be still married. Which basically is just because Diego and I had dropped the ball. He moved before he could finish the paper work to appear in court. I didn’t know he would be moving so soon after getting home from Afghanistan. She said she was calling because her father was a little upset by the fact that I had come forward at such a late time. I understood. Now, Dakota and Edmond, her boyfriend, did know we had been married but Diego had told everyone we had already finalized the divorce. I was just a loose end he hadn’t tied off. Dakota then told me that she would call her dad, and his casualty assistant officer, and tell them she and I spoke. I’m sure to also tell them I wasn’t after anything, and that I just wanted answers. She told me someone would call me very soon.
When I hadn’t had a phone call, I called Capt Louis back, and asked who I could call in the Army to get some answers. He then gave me SGT First Class Salina Jack’s phone number. When I called her, she knew who I was, but I could sense her un-ease and hesitation. She told me someone from Fort Alamosa would be calling me very soon to ask for proof of the marriage and who I was.  About thirty min later my phone rang and it was Raymond Brock from Fort Alamosa. He asked me to fax him a copy of the marriage license as soon as I could. If I wanted to attend Diego’s funeral the next day at 11am in DC, things would have to move very fast. I told him I needed to wait. I didn’t tell him at the time I had to tell Denver about everything that had happened. I needed to make sure he was ok with me attending the services and having to leave in less than 4 hours. So when I got home at 3pm, I told him everything. He then, being the amazing man he is, gave me his blessings. His concern was for me going alone. At this point that hadn’t even crossed my mind, but it did very quickly. I hadn’t even flown since I was about 12. So that set in a bit of a panic. But I wanted to be there, to say goodbye. To say goodbye to someone who had been a big part of my life's time line. Also, when I married Diego, I married a soldier in the US Army. I knew, when I took my vows, that I might someday have to stand as his widow in that sacrifice. To the military, I was still his legal binding wife. As a respect to the Army, and Diego’s family I wanted to pay my respects and stand as his wife. It meant more to me to honor his name, than my fears of flying, and fear of walking into a situation I had no idea how I’d be received in. After all, these people just found out about me less than 24 hours before they were about to bury their son, brother and soldier. Let alone, Cheyenne, his fiancé. How would she deal with me being there? I had already told the family I didn’t want to receive the flag, that I still wanted it to go to his father. I also mentioned how I’d like to keep myself hidden from the family and Cheyenne. I went in hopes they wouldn’t hate me for the secrets kept, and for the last minute decision to attend. I had no idea what they would think or say. I was going alone. I’d be completely alone if they were not happy to see me. Denver and I had dinner, then headed to the airport.
My flight left at 8:15pm from Charleston, and didn’t arrive in Baltimore until 6:50am. Salina would be picking me up. I didn’t sleep at all on the flights. I was so afraid, not only of flying but of what I was about to face. The pure sadness and severity of the situation was overwhelming. The plane landed about 15 min ahead of schedule, so I had little time to run to the bathroom. I ran in and changed into my black dress, ripped the tags off and put on my heels. I brushed my teeth in the airport bathroom and put on deodorant. I started to make my way to the baggage claim where she was going to meet me. When she got to me I realized she was just a little thing, and not nearly as scary as I had pictured her. She then, being the first person in uniform I had encountered, gave me the official condolences for my husband’s death from the US Army. Right there in the middle of the airport! I could hardly look her in the eyes, I just couldn’t help but start crying. When she was telling me how sorry she was, I felt it. We then walked out to her bright orange Jeep, where she opened my door and helped me with my bag. First time a girl has done that for me! I was a little uncomfortable at first, and then she told me we had to pick up Rio, Diego’s dad and little brother Collin. After her and I had an hour in the car alone together, we then had another hour with them to Arlington. This made it even more uncomfortable. She stopped so I could get a Redbull, and she could get an airfreshener for her car since her husband didn’t like her to smoke in the Jeep. She became human to me at the moment. She wasn’t a soldier, she was a woman just like me. In the next hour she asked me questions and answered a lot of mine that I hadn’t had the chance to ask. She told me stories about herself that were a great distraction, and helped me get more comfortable with her. It also helped her understand why I was there, and I could tell she wasn’t worried about me possibly hurting the family. That was a great sense of relief. She told me that when we got to the funeral home where Diego was and where we would meet Rio, that she would speak to him first. She wanted to prepare him for me, and break the ice. We picked up Diego’s escort and headed to the funeral home. When we got there Salina and his escort got out, she asked me to stay in the car so she could speak to him in private. As they walked away, I realized that I wanted a chance to see Diego before we went to Arlington, and before his family arrived. I jumped out and ran in after them. While we all stood there in the freezing cold parlor with the mortician it hit me like a ton of bricks where I was. I was so sad and so overwhelmed I ran back outside, sat on the stairs, and just cried. Salina came out to talk and to see if I was ok. I asked her if I could see Diego now and she took me out back. She put on the white gloves to take his remains out the blue velvet bag. The second I saw him, I balled, and couldn’t breathe. Everything had come down to right now. It all hit me. I realized I was standing outside a funeral home, across the country, saying goodbye to Diego. I was so sad and so terrified. This was it? This was all that was left of the man I married? A small box with his name on the outside. Salina put her arms around me and let me cry. I took a few deep breaths, wiped my tears, and pulled it together. When we went back inside, Rio, Diego’s dad had pulled up out front. Salina went out to greet him. I sat alone in the freezing cold waiting room for a few minutes alone, shaking. I’ve never been so afraid to meet someone in my life. Salina came in the door to tell me the hearse was ready and we had to leave. As I walked out the front door I looked to the cars for Rio, but as the door shut he and Collin were on the other side, catching me off guard. Rio looked at me in a pause for a split second and reached out his hand to shake mine. When I reached back he just grabbed me and hugged me. I'd soon find out that that is just the kind of man he is. I then shook Collin's hand, and we all got into Salina’s Jeep.  I was crying, like an idiot for the first few minutes of that car ride. I’ve also never felt like I wanted to say a million things, but couldn’t find a word to say in my life. I just kept crying. Rio reached to the front seat and put his arm on my shoulder, as if to comfort me, on the day he had to say goodbye to his son. Again, just the kind of man he is, comforting a complete stranger on the hardest day of his life. Salina broke the ice, and started us talking. I wish I could remember more of what we all talked about, but I was just in complete shock. I know I did explain why I was there for his son, and that I hoped he was ok with it. All he could say to me was how sorry he was for how I had been wronged, and what I must have gone through. This made me feel better with every word he said. He wasn’t angry with me, or disappointed in my presence. I made it a point to explain why I was there, but I also wanted all of the recognition to go to his father, family, and Cheyenne. But I asked if it would be ok to keep some things as his widow. I didn’t want anyone other than the military and his family to know me, but I wanted the ones who did to understand I was hurting too. Even though I wasn’t his wife really when he died, I was still his wife at some point. That’s what was important to me. Not the attention, but the understanding I was there out of respect for Diego first, and my closure second. As we got closer to Arlington, I got more and more nervous... We arrived at the chapel.
Things went so quickly from there. I got a chance to hug Dakota, his sister, and then we were escorted in. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do so I just followed them. We went down a hallway and I lost sight of Salina so I just followed Rio and Dakota. We were sat in the library with about 10 bright blue chairs in a circle. I sat in the one right behind the door, to hide on purpose. I still couldn’t see Salina, and now I was in a room with other people who were staring at me. I was sitting with his aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. When Salina finally came back in, she asked the extended family to please leave. As I got up, she told me to sit back down. A man came in then, and presented us with the gold lapel pins. When he finished his speech I looked down at my hand at this little blue box, and realized I was about to be a part of a very big deal. But before I could start to cry again, Rio came over and had me move over and sit with Dakota. That was when I started to feel a little bit at ease. As Diego’s grandparents came in Rio leaned into to tell them who I was. First his grandpa came over, hugged me, and cried. He then went to his grandma. As he told her who I was, I saw her eyes go right for me. She was in a wheel chair, and asked to be pushed over to me. She grabbed my hands and told me how happy she was to meet me. I cried and couldn’t stop saying how sorry I was for bringing this on her that day of all days. I was in this tiny room, and couldn’t run no matter how badly I wanted to. I watched Rio across the room sign all kinds of paper work, I couldn’t imagine what this man had to be going through. I sat awkwardly and nervous for the remainder of the time in the library. From that room we walked into the chapel, I followed Edmond, because again, I had lost Salina.  Edmond and I sat in the back away from the family, and from Cheyenne. As the doors opened, the color guard marched in Diego’s remains. I lost all composure I had been holding for an entire week. I hung my head and just cried. I didn’t hear a word the man said at the altar, much like when Diego and I got married, I just tuned it out. It was a short time though, and as the family left, Salina had me and Edmond join as we all walked outside behind Diego. I walked with Edmond, and Cheyenne over to the car to go to the grave side. That was the first real few minutes of peace I felt. As we pulled up, Cheyenne ran to catch up. Edmond, his friend and I followed behind. It was so muddy by the street and I was in heels. The last thing I needed was to fall into mud, draw attention to myself and look like a complete asshole. As we got near the grave site, I wanted to stand where I could see the color guard, the family, and Diego. So I stood off to the left with Edmond. I had the best view, while still being hidden. It was quiet, and the man in uniform started to speak from the Bible again. As the color guard marched again, they saluted the rifle men off to our left for the gun salute. As the first round of shots went off,  I lost the composure I was trying to keep for the family. Plus as I was standing around everyone crying, they had to be curious who this tattooed mystery woman was, convulsively crying like a fool. The only vision I had is looking at the grass. As the last few rounds were shot off, my sunglasses filled up with tears to the point I had to dump them out. As I reached into my purse to get more tissue I heard Edmond gasp. As I looked up, a man in uniform was coming towards me. My heart dropped, but as he turned his back to me, Edmond and I let out a breath. Edmond told me he was about to step in front of me if the man was coming to me. I still don’t know why he was there. Then they had the color guard fold the flag. I can remember it in slow motion, each fold so perfectly practiced executed. As they all turned towards Diego’s remains they stood straight, and held a salute for what seemed like an eternity. As they brought the flag to his father, the man leaned into whisper to him. I just watched and held my breath. My knees were so weak. I was so hungry and exhausted I thought I was going to pass out. But then I remembered to take a breath. I had just seen one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen in my life. The respect, and compassion these men in uniform had shown Diego, and his family was breath taking. I was in the middle of Arlington, watching them bury my husband. As tourists were walking around, and I could see the Lincoln Memorial, I took in the beauty so deeply. I was overwhelmed. It’s a moment in time burned into my head like a Polaroid. I’ll never forget what I saw, and how I felt. It changed me, and touched me.
As the family stood it was time for things to be put into the box that would be buried with Diego. I saw Dakota talking to Cheyenne, and Rio came over to me to ask if I’d like to put in a lock of hair. I
looked at him like he just asked me to remove a kidney. I said no, but thought instantly. Diego didn’t want me for eternity, so why am I going to  bury him with a piece of me, that would just be mean. I chuckled to myself. But as I saw Cheyenne get her things to put in with Diego and her anger. I was confused. Why didn’t she shed a tear? Why was she yelling? Where was all of this anger coming from? I hadn’t let on to who I was, and I knew she still had no idea who I was, but she was so mad. It had nothing to do with me, she was angry for losing Diego. She had every right to be, I was angry for her. How horrible for her to be there, burying her future husband. I understood her anger, but not how it was directed to his family. I wasn’t ok with the short bursts of vulgarity she directed outward in front of his grave. Here I was standing in the back giving her the spot as the widow, and she wasn’t grateful to the family for it. That hurt. Later when I spoke to Salina about it, she said something to me that made it all make so much sense. She said “You gave her that gift. You can choose to have given it unconditionally or you can choose to feel let down by her.” I gave her that in my own mind, she was allowed to do with it however she needed too. Who was I to judge her, I wasn’t in her place. But I had already become defensive of the family, and Salina. I didn’t want to see them be disrespected.
As people began to leave Salina found me and stood with me for a few minutes. As soon as it was just the family, and close friends Salina spoke freely. She asked everyone to come to her car. As we got to the Jeep, I saw the shadow box for Diego’s flag she had for Rio. I also saw them remove the flag that would be given to me. I got really nervous very quickly. The man in uniform took the flag from Salina and walked over to me. As I took the flag from him, he gave me his most heartfelt I’m sorry, and he said a lot of other stuff but I was honestly crying so I hard I didn’t hear a word he said. I kept looking down at this flag making sure I was holding it right and holding onto the envelope in his hand under the flag. I was scared, and all I could do was keep looking at Dakota, Collin, Edmond, and Rio. I was making sure they were ok with what was going on. But that was exactly how I wanted it to be, in private with just them there with me. After that was all done I began to say my goodbyes. Salina was first. I couldn’t begin to thank her in that moment for all she had done for me. She had been the first person to reach out to me. She gave me the strength and confidence to face the family, and the day. She braced me for the events of the day. She helped me keep going, and keep it together and not give into my fear. I asked her in the car when it was just us two, “is it too late to change my mind? Can I go home?” She obviously said yes, but you can do this. She was amazing to me that day. I'll never be able to repay her for the compassion she showed me, but I'll thank her for the rest of my life. Next was Dakota, Edmond and Collin. I hugged them, but didn’t get the chance to really say thank you for letting me be a part of it. And for them letting me stand with them, and say goodbye. They let me in without a single hesitation, they are great people. Last was Rio, the hardest. When Rio hugged me, we both cried. Here was a man saying goodbye to another precious member of his family, his son. And he still found it in himself to cry for me as well. He didn’t know me for more than 3 hours and he held me like a father. He opened his heart and his life to me from the second he snuck up on me from behind the door. He and I cried together, but also for each other. He and I are now very close, I talk to him every day. I plan on being whatever part of his life I fall into. I’ve also made room for him in my life. We will walk away from this gaining a relationship neither of us knew we would ever have. He is a great man, filled with love and compassion. I don’t know the relationship he had with Diego, but I know the one he has with me now. That’s all that matters to me and my story.
As I got into Mr. James car to go to the casualties office, I took a deep breath. We drove off with Diego’s escort in the back seat. They respected the way I decided to handle all of this. They were almost grateful for lack of drama. I don’t blame them. They said they respected me, and that felt good. That was the point of me being there. To show that Diego had made his mistakes, but as his wife I would show no disrespect. I wanted them to see that he had made a choice to do something with someone who would respect him till the day he died as a soldier. The fact that they saw that in me, made it all worth the stress, exhaustion, starvation, and tears. When we got to the office, the woman at the desk said “I’m so sorry for your loss Mrs. Rivera.”  That was the first and only time anyone had addressed me as such, and it felt so strange. When I came out, James took me to a quiet room away from the crowd of other people. I was in black and clearly crying, they were all staring at me, like I was this fragile piece of glass. They knew why I was there instantly. So as they tried to get me a hotel near the airport, I sat alone in this cool quiet room. I was alone for the first time, and I cried. I was so tired and I missed Denver. I just wanted to be at home with him. I was so drained and so tired. I leaned my head against the wall and in seconds I nodded off. They came back in and had a room for me. We got in the car, and we drove past the Pentagon. It was surreal, the whole day everything that was going on was so unbelievable. Then I was driving by the Pentagon with this man I didn’t know, telling me about the memorial pools for the people lost in 9/11. It was all just too much.
I finally got to the hotel and checked in. I took off my heels and hit the bed. I made 2 phone calls, and ordered room service. I was in Maryland, so I had to have a crab cake. I hardly ate any of it, I was so sick to my stomach from the horrible headache that had set in. I just fell asleep. My phone rang, it was Dakota. When I answered I had no idea where I was or what was going on. We had talked about possibly getting dinner, but in reality we both had been through enough emotions for the day. So we just said another time. When Denver got off work he called me and we talked, I missed him so much and I felt so alone. I just wanted to be with him so much it hurt. Plus the migraine I had made everything so much worse. But it was then Rio started to text me. He wanted to have a chance to see me and talk before I left, but I just couldn’t. Plus I just wanted to sit on the phone with Denver and survive the last few hours of that day until I got on the plane to go home.  When I looked in the mirror, I thought, is this what he would've wanted? Is this how he would've wanted me to do this? Also, why did this happen like it did, and why did I hurt so much? I had that time to think about everything that had just happened. I had to say goodbye, and still stand as his widow. Something I knew I wasn’t to anyone, except to the army in black and white. But I had a duty to do, for them. In my eyes, I was his ex wife, but had no choice in my own moral code, to stand as these people wanted me too. Luckily, they were all so understanding and compassionate they let me do it the only way I could imagine, as a ghost. I’ve wondered so many times during this, and now after it, if I did the right thing. I feel guilt, and like he would have just wanted me to stay out of it. But in the same thought, I believe funerals and such are for the living. They are done to give people closure, and a chance to say goodbye. That’s what I needed, and that’s what I took from it all. But I do still have this weight on my shoulders.  Like I did wrong by him. But he can’t talk to me, and I’ll never know what he would have had me do in the situation. So, I have to just take from this situation that I did the best I could. I went into it with good intentions, and not to hurt anyone or take something that didn’t belong to me. I need to move on, and let go of him, all over again. But this time, I'll do it with a sad heart, and not a broken one. None the less, I’ll have my life with Denver back.
When I got back to Charleston, Denver’s mom picked me up from the airport. I was so happy to be home to a safe familiar face. I hit the bed for an hour until Denver got home. I’ve never been so happy to see someone in my life. This had changed things for him and I. I loved him more, if it were possible. It showed me the man he is, and the strength he has. Plus the confidence he has in us to let me do this. He stood by me while I buried my husband. As a boyfriend, how many men do you know that would do that? And with such love and support?
Later that day I got a phone call from CAO, Albert Williams. He would be my tie to the military. He will explain and help in every process I come too. He isn’t a therapist, but he clearly wants to help. When I sat in front of him for the first time I was so scared. I had to, yet again, explain the situation, and to someone who didn’t know anyone. So I just laid it all out. I didn’t lie or hold back. He knows every detail. I figured this was the best place for us both to be. He can understand everything I’m being faced with. Plus, I doubt he was there to judge me, and we would be spending a lot of time together. Our side to this story is just starting. I'm ready, more than ever to put this all behind me. I look forward to my life now, and the sadness will get easier. Things that are out infront of me now seem like a task, but I know they will be a reward in the end. Its hard to force myself to make the phone calls, and sign the papers. But I have too. It’s the duty I have to see this all the way to the end. I'm about 3 weeks behind everyone else losing Diego. I'm still early in my grieving.  So the army and I are trying to catch up…. After all, I am now, and will forever be, an Army Widow.
 
Who is Ari? She's A Woman....

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