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A TRIBUTE TO THE FALLEN CHAPLAIN'S AIDE CARED FOR `ANGELS' OF BATTLE VICTIMS OF WAR WERE ALL `ONE OF US'.

Byline: DANA BARTHOLOMEW Staff Writer

Staff Sgt. Cristina Aguilera opened her first body bag from Iraq expecting to find the remains of an American soldier, Sam.

Instead, she found herself looking at the curled eyelashes of an ``angel'' -- 18-year-old Pfc. Sam Huff, one of 64 women killed so far in the Iraq war.

``She was a beautiful, beautiful girl,'' recalled Aguilera, an Army reservist who served tours of duty near Afghanistan and Iraq.

``I had to talk myself through it. I had to pray, to ask God for the graces. ... She had given the ultimate sacrifice.''

Aguilera, a 38-year-old chaplain's assistant, processed the remains and effects of America's fallen troops at a base in Kuwait.

There, she and others who handled America's war dead referred to them as ``angels'' -- never ``remains.''

Their spirits, like those of the archangel-soldier St. Michael, looked after those in combat.

There were hundreds of such angels, transported on trucks and helicopters to the small military morgue known as the Theater Mortuary Evacuation Point. It was really a tiny tin building with a wall A/C unit that could never keep it cool. It smelled of death.

But the angels, their bodies in bags within transfer cases covered in Stars and Stripes dusty from the field, were now a part of life.

It is those angels -- and those who served in all the wars -- who will be remembered today during Veterans Day tributes across the nation. Aguilera will speak tonight at a candlelight vigil in Van Nuys.

``The way I saw it, these angels were one of us,'' said Aguilera, tears cascading down her cheeks. ``We just needed to care for each other when we're far away from home.''

Uncle killed

Aguilera, an Army Reserve chaplain's assistant now stationed at the 420th Movement Control Battalion in Sherman Oaks, wasn't always enthusiastic about a life in the service.

Her uncle was killed in Vietnam -- a source of perpetual family grief. But her brother enlisted.

And when the round-faced girl from East Los Angeles saw a photo of Carlos decked in Army camouflage fatigues, she did, too.

The girl who'd never slept a night away from home other than at cheerleading camp ended up in boot camp -- tossing grenades, firing M-16s and suffering the endless tirade of drill sergeants.

``The first thing I thought as I laid my head down to cry at night was, `I don't think this was a good idea,''' she said.

That was 19 years ago. Soon she was gung-ho, working as a supply accountant ordering equipment or as an ammunition specialist counting bullets.

After the 9-11 terrorist attacks, she was mobilized to fight in Afghanistan. There were tents. There was dust. There was the poverty of nearby villages. There was the ``Dear Jane'' letter from home.

But there was always national pride.

``When you're out there in the middle of the desert, in the middle of nowhere, you see the national colors. It's the most beautiful sight -- you just swell up with pride.''

She would later see many flags, over many coffins, streaming from Iraq.

``Girlie girl''

Pfc. Sam Huff, according to her father, had been the consummate ``girlie-girl'' from Tucson, Ariz. She had long tresses. She liked false eyelashes. She played flute for her high school band.

In July 2004 she joined the Army, the first hurdle to a career in the FBI.

The following April, the military policewoman became the 37th U.S. woman to die in Iraq since 2003 when her Humvee was hit by a roadside bomb in Baghdad.

``Beneath that beautiful young lady,'' according to her sergeant, ``was a backbone of steel.''

Aguilera, who served under Chaplain Col. William L. Brunold of Burbank in the 377th Theater Support Command, was waiting.

Like the hundreds of angels that would come, the chaplain's assistant removed the flag, opened the metal case and identified the soldier from what remained.

There were the wallets, the credit cards, the photos, Chapstick and the many duffels to be bundled home to grieving families.

In Huff's case, there was her rosary ring, her prayer card and her medallion of St. Michael.

Aguilera packed 20 pounds of ice around Huff's head, chest and thighs.

Brunold blessed the body: ``Let Your perpetual light shine upon her.''

Then Aguilera wrapped Huff's transfer case with a crisp new flag. Like all other angels, she was accompanied by a personal color guard into an awaiting aircraft, sent off by a four- second salute.

Brunold then recited a final ``ramp ceremony'' amid the din of whirring aircraft engines.

Before the plane or helicopter lifted off, Aguilera bent over to kiss each flag-covered casket.

``When the angels came in, we did the ... ceremonies,'' said Brunold, a 24-year reserve officer who now serves as interim pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Norwalk.

Some blessings, if appropriate, he would perform in Hebrew.

``It was very dignified, what we did. Every single transfer case was saluted in a very special way.''

Aguilera, whose final tour ended last year, cried just once, she said.

One day, she had to console a Marine whose identical twin brother was killed while on patrol in Ramadi.

The Marine demanded he see his brother, whose remains were considered unviewable. He then asked to use her cell phone to notify his mom back home.

``Mom, I'm sorry,'' the Marine had said, sobbing. ``I'm sorry. It was all my fault. I didn't take care of him.

``I'm afraid to look in the mirror.''

The tragedy caused Aguilera to cry herself to sleep.

For her service, she was awarded the Army Meritorious Service Medal. For her part, she insists she is not a hero.

Upon her return she was also diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as survivor's guilt.

``A day doesn't go by,'' said Aguilera, an aide to L.A. City Councilman Tony Cardenas, who organized tonight's vigil, ``when I don't think about the angels.''

For Brunold, Veterans Day means honoring the thousands of soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines who have served ahead of us. And as the former Armistice Day, to honor the millions who died in World War I and other wars.

``It goes beyond just the service that I performed,'' said Brunold, 55, who will attend the Van Nuys vigil. ``For me, it means that we stand in a long line of proud men and women who wore the uniform, who were called to duty, when the nation needed help.''

dana.bartholomew(at)dailynews.com

(818) 713-3730

CAPTION(S):

2 photos

Photo:

(1 -- color) Staff Sgt. Christina Aguilera holds a flag that once covered a body bag of a fallen U.S. soldier. Aguilera served as a chaplain's assistant in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Tom Mendoza/Staff Photographer

(2) Christina Aguilera is shown with Chaplain Col. William L. Brunold of Burbank.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Nov 11, 2006
Words:1132
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