|From The New York Times nytimes.com
February 1, 2007
A Father With a Coffin, Telling of War’s Grim Toll
By TRYMAINE LEE
Carlos Arredondo leaned toward the coffin in the back of his pickup truck yesterday and renewed a promise to his dead son, one that he has kept for more than two years.
In a whisper, he vowed never to let his son’s death be forgotten. He closed his eyes and slid his right hand across the American flag stretched over the coffin, his fingertips tumbling over each of its faded red stripes.
“This is my whole world,” he said, facing the truck, his arms open wide. “This is my burden.”
Mr. Arredondo, 46, stood on West 43rd Street in Times Square, shivering in the morning chill. His son, Lance Cpl. Alexander S. Arredondo, 20, was a marine killed in Iraq in 2004 while fighting in Najaf.
Passers-by slowed or stopped to view Mr. Arredondo’s mobile memorial: the coffin, filled with his son’s prized possessions, and the green Nissan truck, each side adorned with poster-size photos of the young marine. Some pictures show him smiling, his teeth bright white. Others show a machine-gun-toting warrior in battle gear. Another shows him lying dead at his funeral.
The display is sad, personal and emotionally jarring. But this is how Mr. Arredondo honors and mourns his son, who was a fire team leader in Battalion Landing Team 1/4, 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), First Marine Expeditionary Force. This is how Mr. Arredondo heals.
“As long as there are marines fighting and dying in Iraq, I’m going to share my mourning with the American people,” he said.
Mr. Arredondo, who lives in Boston, travels the country putting his sorrow on display. He accepts donations along the way. The coffin he takes with him holds some of his son’s things: a soccer ball, a pair of his favorite shoes, a Winnie the Pooh. He also shows people his son’s boots, uniform and dog tags.
Healing has been long and slow. First there was denial and self-destruction.
It all began on Aug. 25, 2004, Mr. Arredondo said, his 44th birthday. A government van eased in front of his home, then in Hollywood, Fla., and three Marine officers in dress blues stepped out.
At first Mr. Arredondo thought it was his son making a surprise birthday visit. Instead, the officers told him that his son had been killed in a hail of gunfire after being trapped in a four-story hotel that his platoon had been clearing. They were surrounded by enemy fighters. It was his son’s second tour of duty in Iraq.
“I just screamed,” he said. “I said ‘No, no! It can’t be my son.’ ”
Mr. Arredondo said he “lost it.” He ran to his garage and grabbed a gallon of gasoline and a propane torch.
He took a sledgehammer and smashed the government van’s windshield and hopped inside. As the officers tried to calm him, Mr. Arredondo doused himself and the van with gasoline and lit the torch.
There was an explosion, and the officers dragged Mr. Arredondo to safety. He suffered second- and third-degree burns over 20 percent of his body.
“I went to my son’s funeral on a stretcher,” he said.
After nearly 10 months of healing, including several in the hospital, Mr. Arredondo became a full-time war protester, quitting work as a handyman to remind people across the country of the human price of war.
His son was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart. But no commendation will fill the void he left behind, Mr. Arredondo said.
“Every day we have G.I.’s being killed, and people don’t really care enough or do enough to protest about how the war is going,” Mr. Arredondo said yesterday. “Some people say I’m dishonoring my son by doing this, but this is my pain, my loss.”
|From The Marine Corps news
Remembering Dondo … a sarcastic, witty leader of Marines
Oct. 31, 2004; Submitted on: 04/21/2005 11:37:19 AM ; Story ID#: 2004103110123
By Gunnery Sgt. Chago Zapata, 11th MEU
FORWARD OPERATING BASE ECHO, Iraq (Oct. 31, 2004) -- This is the sixth in a series of seven articles paying homage to the Marines of the 11th MEU who bravely fought and lost their lives during fighting in An Najaf, Iraq, this August.
He was young, barely 20 years old, but he made a lasting impression. His friends fondly remember a ready smile, quick wit, total selflessness and of course, his signature sarcastic sense of humor.
As one of the seven Marines who fell in combat during the battle of An Najaf, Iraq, Lance Cpl. Alexander S. Arredondo, fireteam leader, 3rd Fireteam, 3rd Squad, 1st Platoon, Company A, Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), will remain forever young and his memory will remain engraved in the minds and hearts of the Marines who served with him.
"Dondo," as he was commonly called, died late in the morning of Aug. 25, 2004, of wounds received in combat in Old City Najaf.
Two months after his death, two of his closest friends sat and talked, not about how he died but about how he lived. There was quite a bit of laughter as they talked, as well as moments of silence where they sat lost in their thoughts and remembrances. They didn't dwell on any negatives … as far as they were concerned, there were none.
Lance Cpl. Christian D. Bauzo, fireteam leader, 1st Fireteam, 2nd Squad, 1st Platoon, A Co., BLT 1/4, 11th MEU (SOC), first met Dondo at the School of Infantry where they were rack mates.
"When I first met him, he was really quiet but he was always a happy guy," said the Miami native. "We came to (BLT 1/4) together and once we started to grow with the unit, he just burst out of his shell. Once he did, he was one of the loudest Marines, always cracking jokes, always trying to make the situation better."
According to Lance Cpl. Peter P. Brogdon, a Phoenix native and fireteam leader for 3rd Fireteam, 2nd Squad, 1st Platoon, A Co., BLT 1/4, 11th MEU (SOC), Dondo's sense of humor was sarcastic but in a serious kind of way.
"He was always up-beat. He always had some kind of sarcastic remark about a situation to make it better," 21-year-old Brogdon said. "He really liked complaining about a lot of things. But if he didn't complain, he used sarcasm. It had to be a joke."
Bauzo said that if you had a fault, Dondo would throw it in your face. He'd show you your fault by making a joke out of it, and would make you want to laugh about it.
"Whenever I fall, I laugh at myself. No one really makes fun of you if you laugh at yourself, but Dondo would," 20-year-old Bauzo said, laughing and shaking his head. "Pointing at me he'd say 'Oh you fell and you're laughing about it. Ha, you fell man, you hit the ground hard. Hey look at me, I'm Bauzo. I fell and now I'm laughing at myself. This is my defense mechanism.' We'd all be laughing by then."
He'd go out of his way to embarrass his buddies, but they'd always end up laughing. He was never malicious about it, that's just the way he was. It was funny the way he did it, Bauzo explained.
Laughing, Brogdon recalled an instance during Operation Iraqi Freedom I, when he and Dondo got in trouble for something Brogdon did while standing on watch. Earlier he had found a grenade fuse and, during the amnesty period when they were supposed to turn in captured ammunition and other contraband, he decided to keep it.
"I was a junior Marine, I was a boot … not too smart," said Brogdon, laughing and shaking his head. "Later I decided I had to get rid of it. Stupid me I decided to set it off while I was on watch."
The result was a loud harmless BOOM, which left them standing there looking at each other stunned not by the fuse but by the knowledge that Brogdon was in trouble.
"Dondo had this shocked smirk on his face when I asked him 'Dude, what are we going to do?'" recalls Brogdon. "He answered with the only possible answer 'Dude, you're (expletive) man!'"
Although Dondo had played no part in the fuse lighting incident he still got in trouble because he was on post with Brogdon and he was considered an accomplice, Brogdon explained.
This misadventure, however, did not affect their friendship. They had been together through too much and gotten to know each other too well for it to harm their bond, Brogdon said.
One thing they had in common was their love of the culture and people of Iraq, Brogdon said.
"We both wanted to learn the language and wanted to help the people here," Brogdon said. "We had a kind of knack for the language. We could connect with these people. Whenever Marines got frustrated when trying to communicate with the Iraqis, they'd call us over and we could understand each other just fine."
According to Bauzo, Dondo had a deep seated desire to learn about Iraq and its people.
"Ever since he found out his brother was half Iraqi, he became very passionate about Iraq, about learning the culture and the language, about the people in general," Bauzo explained. "He actually loved being here."
According to Bauzo, Dondo also loved martial arts. He loved to climb, surf, and snowboard. He loved this country and he was also somewhat of a ladies man.
"He did a lot of karate before he joined the Marine Corps. That's basically where he got his physique. He was always disciplined and physical," said Brogdon. "He'd been into it for about six years or so. One year he did one kind of martial arts, the next year he tried something else. He never stuck to just one thing. He always wanted to do his own thing."
Dondo was a well-built young man -- tall, broad shouldered, with a V-shaped body.
"He was pretty cut even though he didn't work out. It was just natural," said Brogdon. "He always looked like he was in peak condition. It's just the way he was."
His physique wasn't the only reason his friends considered him a ladies man.
"He had a thing for picking up girls," said Bauzo. "He'd go up to a girl and play off their game. The worse they treated him, the worse he treated them, and they loved it. They just couldn't get enough of him. At the end of the night, there he'd go with that girl that at first didn't want anything to do with him."
There was more to Dondo than his sense of humor and good looks. He was an excellent fireteam leader, according to a member of his fireteam.
"Throughout the month of August, while we were in Najaf, he proved himself to be an exceptional leader," said Lance Cpl. Jason W. Williams, 19, a Lander, Wyo., native and machine gunner in Dondo's fireteam. "He wasn't shy about jumping out there and giving cover fire for Marines, making sure his Marines were safe, making sure that they were getting their food and water. He was one of the best Marines I've known and he was an exceptional fighter."
To his platoon sergeant, Staff Sgt. Simon L. Sandoval, 28, who had only know him about nine months, Dondo was a humble, unassuming, quiet kind of guy who was really close to his family and could be depended on to lead his fireteam right.
"He was a good leader, mentally tough, always running his fireteam well and always ready to go," Sandoval said. "He always made sure things were done before I said anything to him. He did them without supervision. You didn't have to push him to do the right thing. You could always depend on him to do the right thing."
According to Sandoval, when 1st Platoon was in the middle of combat in Najaf, every time there was a fireteam that needed to do a mission, he picked Dondo's fireteam.
"He was a strong leader and his fireteam showed it," Sandoval said. "Dondo was ready to be an NCO."
Alpha Company's 1st Platoon lost two good Marines, Arredondo and Pfc. Nicholas M. Skinner, during the battle in Old City Najaf. Sandoval felt both deeply.
"One thing I can say about Dondo and Skinner is that I loved them both, even though I didn't show it," he said. "I'm proud to have been their platoon sergeant. I plan to tell their parents that when I see them."