On January 29, Luis Moreno became the youngest New York soldier to die in Iraq (he was 19). Since the conflict began, 1,274 Americans, including 15 New Yorkers, have been killed in the war. New York spoke to Moreno’s older brother, Manuel, at his parents’ home in the South Bronx.
What was your brother like growing up?
I’m not going to lie—none of us were very studious. He loved to play pelota—baseball. He loved music. We had a big stereo system, and we’d D.J. parties on weekends. And when he had a craving for Dominican dumplings, which was all the time, he hounded me to make them for him.
What did your parents think of his decision to enlist?
He wanted to join the Army and then come back to enroll in the Police Academy. My parents weren’t against it, because at that point we weren’t at war yet. We saw it as something positive for his future.
Did the Army change him?
He was a little plump—we called him Culón, “Big Butt.” But he lost weight and got really strong. He was thrilled.
You threw him a good-bye party when he heard he was going to Iraq. We cranked up the Bachata, a slow-rhythm merengue. His favorite’s Anthony Santo. I got up to go to work at 6 A.M., and the party was still going.
What did the two of you talk about while he was in Iraq?
He’d complain about the excess of work. Sometimes he’d work sixteen hours straight. He was always curious about a place called Palanque that we used to go to on Sundays, but I didn’t tell him too much about the parties I went to. I didn’t want him to be preoccupied with what he was missing out on.
Didn’t you worry about him?
He would tell me, “I have a mission on such-and-such day.” And I’d say, “Be careful.” Something that we say in the Dominican Republic is “Siempre de Moca, nunca de Baní.” In Spanish, to be mosca means to be like a fly: hard to catch, hard to kill. Moca is also a town in the D.R., and so is Baní. So Dominicans say “Always from Moca, and not from Baní.” It means be quick, be elusive, don’t get caught.
What were his impressions of Iraq?
He was shocked to see that it was a really poor country. Poorer than ours. That it was backwards, no cars, no buildings. That it was a wasteland.
What did he think of the American occupation?
He thought it was necessary in the beginning, based on the alleged motives to go to war—that there were weapons of mass destruction threatening the well-being of the rest of the world. But we’ve been there for over a year, and we still haven’t found any WMD. That makes you think that it’s simply a war for oil. It makes me crazy when I think about that, and what happened to my brother.
Luis was killed by a sniper.
The report says that he was guarding a gas station. One of his buddies told me that they were near a tank, and they were changing guards, and Luis was up next. When he stood up, they heard a shot, and when one of his buddies turned around he saw my brother jump. They wrapped his head. One of his buddies, a sergeant, gave him a statuette, something from the church, maybe it was a baby Jesus, and put it in his hand, and Luis looked at it and he closed his hand around it and squeezed.
How did you get news of his death?
They called my cell and said that he had been shot in the shoulder. Then they called me a second time, and said that no, it was two shots, one in the shoulder or the chest, the other one in the head. That was January 23. That Sunday, they said they were going to transfer him to Kansas so that he could recover; later, they said, “Listen, I’m going to tell you the truth. Your brother’s going to Kansas so that you can say good-bye to him.” And I felt my heart falling. My heart and soul just fell out of me. They tried to bring him to Washington, but because of a blizzard they had to do an emergency landing in London. I couldn’t get off work, so a cousin and my dad went. When my dad returned, the only thing he said to us was, “We lost him. We lost Culón,” and the tears ran down his face.
He was made an American citizen, wasn’t he?
Luis wanted to become an American citizen—even though he was 100 percent Dominican, the least Americanized in our family—but he had never applied. But our congressman, José Serrano, took it upon himself to get Luis’s citizenship retroactively, so he could die an American. And he did.
He posthumously received the Purple Heart and Bronze Star, too. At first I was like, What are medals worth anyway, what are they good for now?
At first, there were a lot of things that I didn’t care about. But I received them with pride. I received them in his name, with honor.
How has your mother handled Luis’s death?
She used to be a woman who liked to hear music and loved to cook. But after Luis died, she lost her ability to function. She forgets everything, simple, obvious things. She forgot that there’s a bodega downstairs.
Do you visit Luis’s grave?
Every week. I talk to him. I always bring two Coronas, drink them, bring him flowers, pour beer on the flowers and around his grave, and I turn up the music that he loved best.
Do you dream of him?
There’s one dream that I’d say wasn’t a dream, it was real. I felt that he put his hand on my shoulder, and he said, “Be calm, hermanito. Where I am, I’m well,” and I said to him, “What’s it like where you are?” and he responded, “Bien, bonito.” That was the happiest day. That was three or four months ago. I swear I felt his presence. I wasn’t dreaming. He really appeared. I felt his hand on my shoulder, I felt it.