Memorial Day: A Reflection on Honor, Service, Family and Community by Alexa Ruiz

May 18, 2020

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Jose and I were college sweethearts. When we first started dating, we were hanging out one night by a golf course near campus, and there was an ominous feeling in the air that night. Jose told me, in a serious and almost warning tone, that he wouldn’t live beyond 33. The significance was not lost on me. That was the age when Jesus died. I wrote it off as a flippant remark at the time, Like Bugs Bunny said, “Don’t take life too seriously. You’ll never get out alive!”

Then Tuesday, September 11th happened.

Jose was very affected by 9/11. He lost a lot of weight and was practicing martial arts every day. He always talked about the way of the samurai, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, and his belief that death was an honor. When he joined the military, five years into our marriage, I warned him that he could die, but he reminded me that death could come in any circumstances, even crossing the street.

He was really proud of his service and that he was part of the Stryker Brigade. They were out in the action, in Mosul. He started to lose some friends and I didn’t want him to lose hope. Jose felt things very strongly and had incredible empathy—he felt bad for the horrible things the families in Iraq were facing every day. The war and his service weighed heavily on him, but he always searched for honor. Soldiers go through battles in their heads and battles in real life.

My husband, Army Specialist Jose Ruiz, was killed in Iraq in 2005 on his final mission before he was scheduled to return home to his family, to me. I was in such a fog after I lost Jose.

Although my first-born, Liana, doesn’t remember meeting her father—Jose last saw her at 2 months old—she honors his legacy every day. It is woven into our family fabric. My youngest daughter, Analeigh, honors Jose’s memory too. Although Analeigh is not Jose’s child, she knows how much I loved him and honors his legacy every time she wipes away my tears at his gravesite.

In 2018, a friend and fellow surviving spouse introduced me to Tuesday’s Children and encouraged me to sign up for a Heart to Heart Retreat in Bandera, TX. I would classify myself as an introvert/extrovert—I’m either afraid of showing myself in case I am judged or I’m too much to handle and put it all out there. Heart to Heart was the first event I attended with only women, and it was so meaningful to make connections to other females and Gold Star spouses. It was the first time I admitted some truths that I had not said outside of my own little circle. It immediately opened my eyes.

Before I met Tuesday’s Children, I was teetering on the border of being a closed-minded person and not knowing how to asking for help. I didn’t know that people would understand my feelings. You wouldn’t believe the things people can say that are so not helpful. Tuesday’s Children helped, and that was pivotal.

The Heart to Heart Retreat came at a time when I was getting ready to go back to school and I only had three years left to use my GI Bill education benefit. I wasn’t sure that Liana would be able to use it if I did, and I’m immensely grateful for the clarity and guidance I got through Tuesday’s Children. After Heart to Heart I felt empowered by the women I met and not afraid of my own shadow.

Jose was always worried about me pursuing my dreams. He knew I wanted to go back to school. After Heart to Heart, I made that decision, and I am pleased to say that I just finished my second degree. My first was in Business Administration, Marketing & Communication, and now I have a second degree in Health Services Management. I have achieved the career versatility I longed for. I want to make a difference someday, own a medical practice or business that ties together vascular and hyperbaric medicine for soldiers to ensure that those who lose limbs to war don’t also lose limbs to diabetes. Because I am now empowered, I have been selected for speaking engagements by my university, organized fundraisers, and I embrace opportunities to share my journey and honor Jose’s legacy.

I am grateful for the connections and community my family has found through Tuesday’s Children. At Heart to Heart, we painted rocks and they gave us bracelets. I carry that rock with me everywhere. The word “me” is a little faded now, but I still see it. I felt like I lost myself when I lost my husband. I feel like I have found myself again. Since Heart to Heart, my family has attended many different events with Tuesday’s Children, and we have been able to meet other surviving family members. My girls have found friends and trusted supports.

Both of my daughters have been matched with long-term Youth Mentors through Tuesday’s Children. When Abby or Kate, their mentors, come and get the girls, I feel such relief because I trust them so much. It’s a huge weight off my shoulders. During this time of isolation, my girls look forward to connecting and seeing them on FaceTime, and Abby and Kate are a huge support for me too. We’ve been sharing resources, self-care and wellness tips with each other to get through this strange time. They are helping my kids during this time, normalizing some of the concerns we have like academics and anxiety.

These mentors and Tuesday’s Children are giving us something constant that we need now. Our usual routine has gone out the window. I’m a spontaneous personality at the best of times and, when the girls had to get up for school, we had structure. Now, I’m giving myself some leeway. They stay up a little bit later, and their sleep pattern has changed. I look to Tuesday’s Children to offer some of the programs that engage our kids, and some of the creative things and virtual resources they are coming up with are great. They are always open to feedback.

Tuesday’s Children, my children, are empowered by the stories and heroism of their ancestors, and this organization helps them remember that. Liana feels indifferent sometimes because she never met her dad—only through Tuesday’s Children programs has she actually met other Gold Star kids. I’ve always been grateful for Tuesday’s Children for seeing our family as a unit. I have never been turned away by Tuesday’s Children programming where other organizations have sometimes not acknowledged my second child, because Jose was not her father. This is a big deal because it comes with a lot of other levels and boosts the confidence and cohesion of our whole family. The effort that Tuesday’s Children puts into their programming and in matching children with the right mentor does not go unnoticed.

My husband’s legacy is that he always wanted to be remembered by the American people. Memorial Day, Veterans Day, Armed Forces Day, Gold Star Spouses Day… a lot of people don’t know the difference and associate these days with barbecues, but for us they are a time to reflect on legacy. This year, I ask that you remember Jose, and all of the Military Families of the Fallen.

My daughter, Liana, has designed a coloring page that your family can place in your window to honor and remember those families this Memorial Day. CLICK HERE to download it now.

Every day, we remember Jose, and that is one thing that will not change this Memorial Day. I knew deep in his heart that he always wanted to be honored and remembered so I am grateful that I can carry his legacy. This Memorial Day, I ask you to please honor and remember the legacy of all Military Families of the Fallen… families like mine.

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