Engaged, Never Married

Photo: Courtesy of Naomi de Jesus

I heard about the death of Sergeant Joe Velez—the papers said his name was Jose, but he called himself Joe with me—a week ago. Word came via one of his fellow soldiers, who telephoned from Iraq. The news struck me with surprising force. I’d only known Velez slightly; I’d met him just two days before he shipped out from his home in the Bronx. We’d spoken a few times, but because of the circumstances—Velez, we both knew, was headed into a kill zone—the conversations grew unusually candid, as if he were mentioning thoughts as they came to him. One thing he was trying to process was whether he should propose to his girlfriend. By happenstance, I was his sounding board. He’d explained the situation by phone the day before he departed. Today, he told me, was his girlfriend’s birthday. He planned to take her to dinner. Maybe, he thought, he should propose then. On the phone, though, he wasn’t entirely sure. Velez was only recently divorced—that was one reason he’d signed up for the military—when out of the blue he met this girl five weeks ago. Plus, he was leaving for a year. Still, he told me, “She’s amazing.” As we talked, he thought more about getting married. “I should propose tonight,” Velez said to me, encouraged. “I think I should.”

On learning of Velez’s death in Iraq, I realized I didn’t know how the story ended, which somehow made his death more unsettling.

I’d first met Velez, a tractor-trailer driver from the Bronx, at Fort Totten, a breathtaking stretch of parkland on the Queens side of the East River. I’d asked to meet reservists, part-time soldiers, heading to fight in Iraq. I wanted to know what it was like to hear the news about Iraq and then head into that chaos. Reservists—National Guard, Marine Reserve, and, like Velez, Army Reserve—mostly trained one weekend a month, plus a couple of weeks a year, a pretty good deal for the benefits, which include educational aid, retirement funds, and extra pay. Before the Iraq war, few military experts considered reservists combat-ready. The caricature, as one National Guard colonel explained to me, was “weekend warrior playing cards, drinking beer.” In the Iraq war, however, President Bush has relied heavily on reservists, who at one point made up 40 percent of America’s troops on the ground.

The 77th command of the Army Reserves, Velez’s unit, had convened for me Velez and three other soldiers. They wore new blousy uniforms that seemed too big and too clean. They were part of a unit that would shepherd convoys of fuel trucks from one base to another. On one hand, Velez welcomed that news. He knew how to handle a truck. On the other hand, being anywhere near a fuel truck made him a prime target. Everyone knew about the buried bombs, so powerful they melt steel truck carriages.

Velez’s captain attended the meeting, as did the company’s senior sergeant. They weren’t there as minders, but the effect was similar. The four soldiers, two women and two men, clutched their hands tightly in front of them and kept conversation to a narrow range. There was talk of the importance of the mission, the pleasures of camaraderie, topics that seemed to have little to do with risking their lives. And they talked about packing the right socks, and stocking their iPods with music, and Iraq’s spiders. “I hate spiders,” said one soldier.

Velez, a beefy 35-year-old, was the oldest soldier there. Perhaps because of that, or because it’s only possible to talk of war as summer camp—socks! iPods!—for so long, Velez eventually shifted the conversation. He said he worried about getting fired on. “Driving down the road, trying to help the Iraqis out and they’re against us. It doesn’t make sense. It scares me to know that there’s people out there who want to hurt us,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about it, and I can’t sleep now.” I could hear emotion bubbling up in him, and I wanted to hear more. That’s what I’d come for. But just then the commanders said the soldiers had to get back to work.

And so, the following day, which was the day before he was to ship out, I phoned Velez. He said that he’d been pricing body armor. His mother even offered to buy it for him. The company sergeant, though, didn’t believe one soldier should have body armor if everyone didn’t. Plus, Velez figured, it’s really expensive, more than $6,000 in some cases. In any case, Velez told me he wasn’t focused on dying. “Then you’re dead,” he said, which I took to mean that if you’re dead, you have nothing more to worry about. Lately, though, Velez did worry about being injured.

He might like to talk to his family about this. But his mother got too emotional and cried. So did his girlfriend. “Nobody wants to hear about war,” he told me. Sometimes, as a way to be with his thoughts, he watched war movies, again and again—he liked Full Metal Jacket, Black Hawk Down. It was the movies, he told me, that gave him the idea that he could lose his legs. He’d been fixated on that possibility. What if he returned home an amputee? And he a truck driver! That would not be good. He couldn’t take care of himself. “Losing a limb and going through life like that,” he said, “I’ve seen soldiers … They get depressed, and I don’t want to give up on life like that.”

Lately, at night, Velez couldn’t sleep. For ten days, he hadn’t slept more than a couple of hours a night. A few weeks before heading to Iraq, Velez had all but moved in with his girlfriend in the Bronx. When he couldn’t sleep, he sometimes sat up in bed and watched her sleep. Other times, he got out of bed. He’d made a list of little projects around the apartment, and he figured he might as well get to them.

“It can wait till tomorrow,” his girlfriend told him, if she awakened.

“No, I’m up.” The other night he fixed the curtains in the bathroom. I have to make sure everyone is safe, he thought.

“It scares me to know that there’s people out there who want to hurt us,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about it, and I can’t sleep now.”

Still, even busy with repair jobs, Velez thought about getting wounded. And so, two days before his departure, he told me that he asked his girlfriend, “Would you take me back if I lost my legs?” Velez knew it was a difficult question. They’d met in church just over a month ago. But two weeks ago, Velez said he realized he was in love with her. For the first time in years, he felt contented. Just the other day, his girlfriend’s 9-year-old son gave him a hug for the first time—the kid called Velez his “personal GI Joe.” Still, Velez worried that, for his girlfriend, taking care of him if, you know, he was injured, was a lot to ask. “It would be hard for her and for me,” he said. But he’d already put the question out there, and so had no choice but to wait for her answer.

Naomi de Jesus, Velez’s girlfriend, is an eighth-grade schoolteacher who also teaches at Mercy College at night. She cried a lot in the days before his departure—sometimes if he was just calling to say he was on his way home. But when Velez posed this very serious question, she composed herself. She thought about everything they’d shared in a short time and how it was like a fairy tale to find such a good person against such a deadline.

“You know I really wouldn’t care,” she told Velez. “As long as you come back alive.”

When Velez recounted this story to me the day before he was to leave, he seemed moved anew. It brought her into focus, her terrific qualities, and also the idea of marriage. His mind seemed to drift in a kind of associative chain. He thought about departing, and about Iraq, and how in the last few days he recognized that he was scared, really scared, and the chemistry of all these thoughts led Velez to a conclusion. He was sure of it now. He told me that he would propose that night. “We’re going to get married,” he said. Then, as if continuing this thought, he added, “I hope I come back.”

Three months later, Velez was the gunner in a Humvee, escorting a convoy in Kirkuk north of Baghdad. His job was to scan the road for enemy targets, which is no doubt what he was doing when, a few minutes past midnight on June 9, a bomb exploded under the Humvee’s right rear passenger door. Velez was taken to a combat service hospital in Baghdad. At 1:35 A.M., a surgeon pronounced him dead. He was one of 2,500 Americans to die in Iraq.

I didn’t know if Velez was engaged at the time of his death—or if he’d even popped the question. In my mind, it seemed a key omission in the cold official report of his death. So I called Naomi.

As it turned out, the night before Velez left, his plans changed. Velez had intended to pick up Naomi, and with her son and his two children from previous relationships, go to dinner, which would have been the setting to talk of marriage. But as he walked into Naomi’s apartment, people shouted, “Surprise!” Naomi had invited her family and his family for a farewell party. And so, improvising, Velez had leaned over to her when the entire party sat down to dinner. “I love you. You’re the most important thing to me. I know I want to spend the rest of my life with you,” he told her. It was a marriage proposal, and as I heard the words, something of a plea. Naomi told me she was busily planning their wedding for when he returned. He e-mailed her that they’d have a baby together. She was looking for a house for them. I know that all the plans make his death more tragic. But, somehow, I was happy to hear them, happy to hear that Iraq hadn’t ended his life, until it did.

Engaged, Never Married