By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published February 3, 2005
A calm rhythm of mourning settled in the sanctuary of Transfiguration Church as the parents of Pfc. Jesus Fonseca Jr. knelt and recited the rosary in Spanish before the wooden coffin, draped with the American flag and a small Mexican one, that cradled the body of their son, who was shot while serving in Iraq.
Neighbor Maria Castaño, whose son enlisted the same year as Fonseca and is studying in Texas, also knelt and lightly clasped her wooden rosary beads, leading the family and friends in the recitation, as a young child toddled towards the coffin.
Pfc. Fonseca’s mother, Gloria Fonseca, later touched the hand of her son before the coffin was closed, and wept softly as two Marines, keeping watch over the fallen soldier, stood stoically nearby.
The parish has about 20-30 military members who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Fonseca was the congregation’s first casualty.
The 19-year-old, born on the fourth of July 1985, had served in the Army’s 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, after enlisting 18 months ago. He was killed Jan. 17 in the western region of Ar Ramadi by a sniper’s bullet after he and another soldier went to check a suspicious vehicle and a car bomb exploded.
He had gone to South Korea for preparation for deployment to Iraq six months ago, and had taken a leave to Mexico before going to Asia where he married his wife, Marlen. He died in service to the nation, the Iraqi people and also to his fellow soldiers. He had been scheduled to come home in December but postponed his leave to enable another soldier leave for an emergency leave, and his rescheduled leave date in January was then delayed to February.
Family members said that Pfc. Fonseca was drawn to the military for discipline, leadership development and physical fitness, and that he loved to work out at the gym. His parents opposed the decision, but supported him after he enlisted at 18. Patricia Fonseca Rodriguez, the oldest of six siblings, said her brother wanted to go into intelligence work. “He was funny, always with a smile, never unhappy. I never heard him argue with anybody. He was very positive about everything. I know he was proud of what he was doing and he did it because he wanted to.”
The Spanish funeral Mass with full military honors was celebrated late on the icy afternoon of Jan. 28 by Father Fernando Ruge, a priest from Colombia in his first week at Transfiguration, and concelebrated by pastor Msgr. Pat Bishop. Gen. John A. Yingling flew in from Washington.
After the ceremony, Pfc. Fonseca’s body was then sent to Degollado, Jalisco, Mexico, for a funeral and burial in the family’s hometown, where family members were to carry the casket on a 30-minute walk to the cemetery. Twenty-four U.S. family members traveled there.
The icy rain began to fall like teardrops outside as the ceremony unfolded, with the honor guard firing shots into the grey sky above the parish. Approximately 400 people gathered for the service, which included Sheila Evans, a teacher at Sprayberry High School from which Pfc. Fonseca graduated, high school friends and Anglo members of Transfiguration including one father with his young son who didn’t know the family but came to show solidarity. Outside the parish a sign read: “A grateful nation says goodbye.” The American flag flapping in the wind flew at half-staff.
In the vestibule, by the Blessed Sacrament chapel, loved ones stood before a picture of the handsome Mexican-American soldier in uniform.
Some 20 members of the Hispanic community helped by planning and participating in the service. The bilingual SouthCare Funeral Home had provided critical support, including in assisting with getting the Army to pay for the body of Pfc. Fonseca to be first brought to Marietta before going to Mexico, as originally the military was requiring the family to pay for the extra stop according to normal policy.
During the homily Father Ruge, who comes from the dangerous Espinal area of Colombia and has led funerals for victims of violence there, spoke of the call of Catholics to live out God’s will for their lives. “Jesus Christ wants to lead us to recognize and charges us to complete the mission we’re charged with, to be witnesses of love, to work for unity, for communion and for defense of dignity and it seems to be what our brother Jesus was able to experience. He chose the military for his personal and Christian walk and to fulfill his need to offer his life,” he said. “He felt proud because he was fulfilling the will of God … If a grain of wheat doesn’t die it doesn’t bear abundant fruit … For this we can’t fill ourselves with anger or anguish because it’s the walk of the Christian to abandon ourselves completely in the hands of God and allow Him to lead us.”
He encouraged the family to let God walk with them in their pain and assured them that they can have peace knowing that their loved one will rest in God’s presence for eternal life.
While many strive for human rewards, “he’ll no longer receive these human rewards. He’s going to receive the reward from God of salvation and joy.”
Msgr. Bishop said parting words. “May it ease our sadness and strengthen our hope (to know) one day we will joyfully meet him again, for the love of Christ that strengthens all things,” he declared.
The teacher Sheila Evans had Fonseca for two classes and offered a tribute during the Mass, which is also posted along with his picture on the front page of Sprayberry High School’s Web site.
“He brought great joy to the classroom. He always entered with a great smile and willing spirit. He was contagious in his enthusiasm for life. He loved to help others. His mastery of English was greater than some of his classmates, and he always lent that helping hand to those who struggled,” she said.
She recalled one time when she had to also watch an English as a Second Language class in which the boys became boisterous and shot rubber bands until Fonseca said, “Ms. Evans may I help you?” He then spoke to them quietly and firmly in Spanish. It worked. She asked him what he said to quiet them, and he responded that “it’s all about respect—you deserve it.”
“That is how Jesus lived his life—quietly accomplishing the tasks at hand—respectful in all he did,” concluded the teacher. “I know that we all miss his gentle spirit, but I know he taught me a valuable lesson—Jesus is a man of his word; he loved well and he earned all of our respect.”
The closed coffin brought in front of the altar was incensed by Msgr. Bishop after which it was pushed to the vestibule and two female honor guards folded the American flag over it and laid it on top.
Seven military outside each fired three shots for a 21-gun salute, after which taps were played. The coffin was brought through the glass doors to the plaza outside and then carried into the hearse as Msgr. Bishop stood in the cold rain with his cream vestment blowing. The bell tower then chimed “Let Freedom Ring” and “His Truth Is Marching On.” The closing hymn was “He Is Risen.”
Fonseca Rodriguez said that she and her parents had talked to her brother about every other week and that “he never seemed upset or scared or anything.”
“I think because he sensed the parents suffering. He always said everything was fine, nothing was going to happen,” she recalled, and that he had gone to Fallujah and had gone house to house there during the assault on the insurgent stronghold.
“I’m the one who spoiled him, got him cookies, chocolates, personal stuff, … anything he wanted I was sending him. The month of December he said, ‘Don’t send anything else because I’m coming home for a leave; I don’t want to miss any packages.’”
Reflecting on his happy spirit, she recalled how once he picked up their very short grandmother “and was bringing her around like a baby doll, just like a baby doll.”
His father, Jesus Fonseca Sr., standing quietly nearby, added that “he only had fear of land mines, and of everything else he always said ‘I’m not afraid.’”
Fonseca Rodriguez said that two military representatives had come to the door to tell of his death and that she had taken a call from a sergeant in Iraq. One never is prepared for such tragedy. “They said they lost a good soldier, that Jesus would tell them jokes. He was always happy; he was never scared.”
Hispanic ministry coordinator Yolanda Berrios met with family members that morning where they discussed the tragedy and their “why” questions about how their son was taken too young. They expressed pride in him. She tried to comfort them and spoke of how “we have to enjoy every single minute of our life, and we have to tell everybody we love them every single day and say, ‘thank God for life every day.’”
Msgr. Bishop, following the service, said that he wished then he could more directly reach out to the family members but didn’t know Spanish. It was the first time he’s directly experienced the death of a soldier in combat since Vietnam.
“It was probably the time I most regretted not speaking Spanish,” said the pastor. “With a soldier who had died in order to protect us, it breaks your heart … It certainly brought everything home for me … there’s nothing anyone can say to comfort us except the Christian who can recall the words of Jesus that nothing or no one can take our life away from us.”
The parish has a book in which members can write the names of family members in the military so that the congregation can pray for them, and prayers are always said for them in Mass, he added. Msgr. Bishop commended the work of the funeral home staff who went out of their way to help with the funeral arrangements at no charge, to ensure that the private was given the honor he was due for his brave service and sacrifice.
Fonseca’s teenage cousins from Virginia, Paulo and Karina Benavides, appearing calmly numb with indifference to the cold as others shivered in front of the church, grew up with their cousin in Degollado and ached with sadness about his death and mixed emotions about the war’s mission. They recalled how, when they’d come down to visit, he always took care of them. And one time he came up there for his birthday and took them to Virginia Beach. “He was a very happy person, very honest. When we came to visit he always tried to make sure we had fun,” she said. “He was like ‘let’s go!’ We laughed a lot.”
Paulo spoke of their sense of shock. “It’s very hard. First you see it as a number in the news, and now you see it very personally about the war.”
The neighbor Maria Castaño recalled how the parents had been very nervous ever since their son enlisted. “He was a very special boy, very sweet, very attentive to the family. He was a special son with his siblings, very caring. He had many dreams” to provide a home for his family and to be a professional.
Close family friend Ron Hidalgo, who went with the family to the airport when the deceased soldier arrived from Iraq, said that the Fonsecas have lived 14 years in the United States, four in California before moving to Marietta.
Pfc. Fonseca “was a very humble young man, very outgoing,” he said. “He just wanted to be a leader. He was always there in the front.”
In addition to his wife Marlen, his parents Gloria and Jesus Fonseca Sr. and sister Patricia Fonseca Rodriguez, Pfc. Fonseca is also survived by sister Gloria Fonseca, brothers Jose Fonseca, Ricardo Fonseca, and David Fonseca, all of Marietta; and many aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews.