The Miami Herald: Fallen Marine's mother carries on, offering comfort to others and expressing pride in her son

May 9, 2011 Issues: Veterans

She also has framed letters of condolence from President Barack Obama, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, and 1st Lt. Eming Luo, commander of Guzmán’s squad. Guzmán was a battalion engineer in the Marines’ Third Division.

“Velma is a strong woman, beautiful inside and outside,” said Ros-Lehtinen, who has kept in contact with the family. “I’m so impressed that all members of the family are volunteering. They are an example, an inspiration.”

The congresswoman said that both Torres and her husband, Félix, Christian’s stepfather, never miss a patriotic, military or veterans event in Miami-Dade County. They always wear T-shirts with their fallen son’s image.

Posted on Sun, May. 08, 2011

Fallen Marine’s mother carries on, offering comfort to others and expressing pride in her son

By DANIEL SHOER ROTH
The Miami Herald

Velma Tores holds her son Christian Guzman Rivera's dogtag at her home in Miami. Guzman Rivera, a U.S. Marine, was killed in Afghanistan in August 2009.

To most of those who know her, Velma Torres is the mother of Christian Guzmán Rivera, a U.S. Marine who died in Afghanistan. But she refuses to be a victim. Instead of seeking consolation for her loss, she prefers admiration for her son.
“The way I see it is that now I’m not only Christian’s mother, but the mother of a national hero,” Torres says. “This carries a responsibility before the community and the world.”

Since Guzmán lost his life at age 21 in August 2009, Torres has made it her job to extol her son’s courage and sacrifice in Operation Enduring Freedom.

If organizers of a military ceremony look for a fallen soldier’s mother to offer her testimony, she is always willing to share her story. If the mother of another dead soldier is depressed, she visits her and offers encouragement.

“We sit down and cry together, talk about the memories of our sons and unburden ourselves,” says Torres, a 49-year-old postal worker. “My son’s story has been an inspiration to other people, has opened people’s eyes.”

To help her highlight those achievements, Torres has created a modest museum in her home in Homestead, where she treasures his medals, plaques, diplomas and photographs. She has her son’s uniform framed and hanging on her wall.

Guzmán’s comrades-in-arms presented her with the flag of their base in the western Afghanistan province of Farah, near the border with Iran, which also decorates her wall. In a glass display case, she keeps a replica of a brick with Christian’s name that is now part of a memorial in Kaneohe, Hawaii, where he received his military training.

She also has framed letters of condolence from President Barack Obama, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, and 1st Lt. Eming Luo, commander of Guzmán’s squad. Guzmán was a battalion engineer in the Marines’ Third Division.

But the most valuable memento is a burned military dog tag that Guzmán carried with him when his Humvee blew up as it rolled over a mine. Torres considers the dog tag her Mother’s Day present because ever since three Marines knocked at her door to break the news she so desperately feared since Guzmán enlisted in 2007, Torres had wanted to have something her son had carried with him the day he died.

“Every day I would tell myself that I would give anything to have something of his,” she says.

Every time she asked military authorities whether they had found something, the answer was no. “They told me it was impossible.”

But last year she found an old message on her Facebook page from a woman who wanted to tell her something confidential about her son. She had worked as a mechanic at another base in Farah province. It had to do with something “supernatural,” but she had to believe her.

Months after the explosion, the mechanic was working at a shop where destroyed vehicles were taken to cannibalize their usable parts. She had just finished inspecting one of the totaled Humvees when, she told Torres, she felt a strong force that kept her from moving. Then she heard a voice that said, “Search.” She kept searching until she found the dog tag.

Fourteen months after her son’s death, Torres’ prayers were answered.

“I know this was his present,” says Torres, a Catholic who says she has managed to remain serene thanks to her prayers.

Before Guzmán joined the Marines, he was part of the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps at Homestead Senior High School. He later graduated as a firefighter from the Miami-Dade academy, where, according to his brother Jonathan, 20, he enjoyed the adrenaline of the life-and-death tightrope.

“The [Miami-Dade] Fire Rescue Department had implemented a hiring freeze,” Jonathan said. “That is why he joined the Marines, so that he could find a job as a Miami-Dade firefighter when he returned.”

Guzmán kept his enlistment secret until a month before he had to leave. Torres says she begged him not to go.

“Since he told me he was leaving, I had this premonition that this was the way it was going to be, that he was going to die in the war,” says Torres.

Although they kept in contact almost daily either by telephone or online, Torres spent her nights in anguished prayer. She began isolating herself from others. Then came the darkest day of her life.
“When you receive the news it is like your heart is being torn out,” says Torres.

She buried her son on Aug. 15, 2009, at Woodlawn Park South Cemetery, surrounded by family members, police officers, firefighters and Marines. The Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department named Guzmán an honorary member, and he has a locker reserved for him, with his helmet and boots, at the Homestead station.

For a year and a half, Torres the cemetery every day after work. Now she visits three or four times a week.

“Velma is a strong woman, beautiful inside and outside,” said Ros-Lehtinen, who has kept in contact with the family. “I’m so impressed that all members of the family are volunteering. They are an example, an inspiration.”

The congresswoman said that both Torres and her husband, Félix, Christian’s stepfather, never miss a patriotic, military or veterans event in Miami-Dade County. They always wear T-shirts with their fallen son’s image.

When they see servicemen and women in uniform on the street, they greet them and thank them for their service. In early April they went to a food festival in Pompano Beach and approached an exhibit kiosk where funds were being raised to support the troops. When the soldiers saw that Torres had a “Golden Mother” collar, given to those who lose a son or daughter in the war, they were stunned.

“People automatically have tears in their eyes,” says Torres. However, she does not cry because she feels that her son is still with her spiritually.

The night before he died, Guzmán changed the description of his mood in his MySpace profile from “tired” to “blessed.” That was his farewell message.

In a visit to Miami in 2008, the Marine gave his mother a huge card that is now in her home museum, a token of his eternal love.

“Mami, blessings. I love you very much! Thank you for all the things you have done and have given, big or small,” he wrote. “I know that sometimes I act as if I didn’t care, but I am extremely grateful. Though I am not here often I hope our relationship keeps improving. Thanks for making me man that I am, for without you I wouldn’t be here standing tall, as you say. I am always here for you, Mami. I love you, Christian.”