“I was assaulted and molested my whole life, until I was 18. When I met Israel, I was in a very abusive relationship. Israel was literally my savior. He saved me. He taught me what love is. After we had Israel Junior, he taught me what a father is. He was my hero way before this story happened.
“Israel’s sister Corina and I were best friends, since the 4th grade. We came from similar households. We were bullied because we were poor. We didn’t talk about our families. I remember her mentioning that she had a brother, but it wasn’t a big deal.
“My brother was graduating from boot camp and my parents left me home alone, so Corina came to spend the night with me. She had to pick up her paycheck from Sonic, and I went with her. And I saw this gorgeous behind in the window and I asked her, ‘Hey, who is that?’ and she told me it was her brother. I asked her why she never told me her brother was so cute! She gave him my number and he called me. I was in such an abusive relationship at the time and was trying so hard to get out of it. Israel was just what I needed. As soon as Israel called me, we went on a date. I remember it clearly. We went to Johnny Carino’s Italian restaurant here in town and went to see the movie Bedazzled. It was perfect after that. It was so perfect. He had such a goofy, great sense of humor. He’d stick his finger up my nose while I was trying to drive and would do anything to make me laugh. He would annoy me on purpose, but he also had this morbid sense and would say, ‘You will miss this if I’m gone.’
“We fell so in love, very quickly. We moved in together only 2 months later and got married so fast after that. There were rumors that it must be because I was pregnant. But actually I didn’t get pregnant until a month or two after we got married. We would talk about it all the time — Israel couldn’t believe that people just didn’t believe in love anymore! It didn’t have to be something scandalous. We just knew. We were young and so in love.
“Israel had talked about joining the military, and when my older brother Manny came back from Marine boot camp, Israel was like, ‘Oh man, this is what I want to do.’ I found out I was pregnant in March 2001 and that’s what really made him decide he had to do it. I remember asking Israel, ‘Why? Why now?’ because he had a really good job at Sonic as a manager, getting paid very well. I asked him why he wanted to join when he had it good there. And he told me, ‘I want to do something that my kids are going to be proud of. I don’t want to be known as a burger boy. I want them to be proud of me.’ He joined the Army, and we had this little party for him. It was the end of August 2001, and I remember him joking around, and even saying, ‘With my luck a war is going to break out.’ Two weeks later, 9/11 happened. I was so young and naïve and didn’t understand how it mattered to us in Texas. But when he came home that night, it hit me. We were just starting our family. But even then, you just think, ‘Not our family. Not us.’
“I had Israel Jr. when Israel was in boot camp. He came back for his R & R for 2 weeks and he took care of the baby like a champ! I was just out of the hospital. I was so tired and still had stitches, and Israel was so happy to get up in the middle of the night with Junior. It was crazy to me, but he just loved every minute of it. He wanted to hold him and feed him and he just loved that about his kids. He would truly cherish the time that he had with them.
“I had our second baby, Michael, in December 2003. Israel left for deployment in March 2004. I had a 3 month old and a 2 year old. It was Israel’s very first deployment. Even the night before he left we had no privacy. My brother had deployed to Iraq two weeks before Israel left, so I moved in with my brother’s wife, Melody. We wanted to be there for each other and start a Sunday ritual of going out for the kids. The night before he left, Israel and I talked, and it was somber. I can’t even explain it … just sadness.
“We went to go drop him off. That morning, his dad was with us. Israel was so happy his dad was there. His dad was his best friend and had a love for him like no other. I remember Israel having to do some stuff with his platoon that day and it was all just kind of a blur. I regret so bad having to come home from that early. Michael was crying and Israel told me it was okay to go home. We gave our hugs and our kisses, and he told me he loved me and he let the boys know how much he loved them. Even then I thought everything was fine … that he would come back home. Going home from that drop off was the hardest thing. Not knowing if I would ever see him smile again, or hold our kids. And even though I was going home to my sister-in-law, I just felt so, so alone.
“He called a week after that. They had stopped before going to Iraq, and he told me he would call me when he got there. It was a quick call, but then he called from Iraq on March 31, which was our 3 year anniversary. He said, ‘Hey babe! Happy Anniversary.’ He said he had literally just gotten off the plane. And I said I couldn’t believe he remembered, and he said he wouldn’t forget that. I remember him telling me he was tired. He said, ‘I had this dream last night. I was hugging Israel Jr. so tight and telling him I loved him. And I woke up hugging my rucksack and I was so pissed that I threw it. I wish I was there with ya’ll right now.’ And you know, before he deployed when we had the FRG meeting they told us to make sure we were always encouraging. So I tried to do that. And he wanted to talk to Junior, so he did, and then he wanted to talk to Michael. I laughed; Michael was only 3 months old. But I put the phone up to the baby’s ear and Israel was telling him how much he loved him and Michael was just making all these baby noises. We said our I love yous and he said he would call me on Sunday. I never got the call.
“The moment I woke up on Sunday (April 4, 2004), I thought something was wrong. We were supposed to have our ritual with my sister-in-law and the kids and I told her I really didn’t want to go. I told her I just didn’t feel good. That whole day I had this strong urge to make chicken curry, which Israel always made fun of me for making. It was in the afternoon, and I got a phone call from my mom, that the police department was looking for me. At the time I didn’t have my driver’s license and I thought it was about that, but it was still so weird to me. Then 15 minutes later my mom called back and said the FRG was looking for me. And I started to freak out. And my mom didn’t know what it was about, except that it was something about Israel coming home early. And I told her, ‘He can’t come home unless he is hurt or dead.’ And she said, ‘No mija. Don’t think like that.’ I let her go and you know I had just moved in with my sister-in-law so I was frantically looking for all the papers they had given us for emergency contacts. And while I was looking, we got a knock at the door.
“My sister-in-law answered it and when she turned the corner and said, ‘It’s for you,’ that’s when I knew. They asked me, ‘Are you Guadalupe Garza,’ and I said yes. And they asked if my husband was Israel Garza, and I said yes. And they said, ‘I’m sorry. Your husband has been killed.’ I couldn’t even feel my knees. I just dropped. And all I kept thinking was, ‘Why God? Why would you do this to my kids? Why?’ And I felt like someone had literally just dropped me in the middle of the desert and said ‘Find your way out. Find your way back home.’ I had based my whole life around Israel, and our future, and it was gone. It was gone just like that. And I remember holding Michael and Junior and just thinking ‘How am I going to do this?’
“The whole week after that was a blur. I remember signing paper after paper – ‘Miss Garza just sign here, sign here’ … I had no idea what I was signing. I do remember Israel’s sisters Corina and Cassandra and his dad coming there the next morning. I remember Leann Volesky (the Lieutenant Colonel’s wife) coming by. So many wives, a lot of the neighbors, so many people came by just to hold me. The military wives in that community were just the biggest support. The biggest. Because they knew exactly what it’s like to have a husband go over there and not know if he’s going to come back. I remember having one of the wives say to me, ‘You are my worst nightmare. To be a widow is the scariest thing to me.’ And I was. I was a widow at 21 years old. With two kids.
“I secluded myself after that to stay away from the military. I went to counseling – I’ve been going to counseling for 13 years. Several years ago I found T.A.P.S. (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors) and that’s where I started to connect with the military again. I met one of my really good friends at a grief camp, and she – and all of them – feel like sisters to me. We have this huge bond. I am so thankful and blessed for T.A.P.S.
“I vaguely remember Martha Raddatz (author of The Long Road Home) calling me, and at the time I thought it was maybe another wife wanting to talk and hear our story, and wanting to write about it, but I didn’t really think much of it. And then my brother called me a year or two later and said, ‘I’m reading this book. It’s Israel’s story, and you are in it.’ And then I remembered talking to Martha. And I went out and bought the book. I only knew about Israel’s injuries and how he died, physically, but I didn’t really know the story or what had happened to him. I read it chapter by chapter. It is so intense, so I had to put it down after each chapter. It did bring some closure. At least I knew why he went in. I can’t say it brought full closure, but it definitely helped.
“National Geographic had called Israel’s sister and she told me that they wanted to interview us as a family. I thought it was going to be for another article. When they told us they were going to make Martha’s book into a series, our jaws were open. And of course it immediately popped into my head about Israel and his guitar. He used to tell everybody that someday he would be famous. And I thought, ‘Oh my God. Israel, you are right. People are going to know your name.’ How sad it is that this is how, but he always knew something big was going to happen with him.
“I’ve seen the first two episodes of The Long Road Home. And what I’ve seen, with Jorge Diaz playing Israel and Karina Ortiz playing me, and all of the actors and actresses — they just did such an amazing — I mean a huge, huge, brilliant, perfect job playing all of us. And you can tell how much the producer, Mikko Alanne, cares about us, and getting it right. He wanted to make sure we were okay with the story and that he was telling it as truthfully as possible. I’m a little apprehensive about how my boys will take it because I only want them to remember the good about their dad. But I am so blessed. I want these kids to know that their dad did not die in vain. He did this for the country, but especially for his children. He truly is a hero.
“It’s been 13 years. I am definitely not the same person I was 13 years ago. Sadly, after Israel passed away I went into a big depression. But I am proud to say that 13 years later I’ve learned how to grieve properly, and how to accept things. The biggest thing I can do is keep Israel’s spirit alive for my boys. I tell stories about him, I take them to his grave whenever they want. We celebrate his birthdays and holidays. The biggest gift I got was his boys. I feel like Israel passed and his soul went into our children. They have his mannerisms and sense of humor and even look like him.
“Whoever said ‘Time heals all wounds,’ has never lost a loved one. It hurts just as much today, 13 years later, as it did that day. But I make sure his spirit is always with us. He was the love of my life. He was my hero. And we will never forget him.”
The Long Road Home, based on the book by Martha Raddatz, premieres on November 7 on NatGeo TV, and tells the true story of “Black Sunday,” the April 4, 2004 ambush that took the lives of Spc Israel Garza and 7 other American soldiers.