Over the years during conversations with friends, family and colleagues, the topic of children’s role models was a popular one. Spirited debates often resulted as suggestions ranged from athletes to celebrities to educators to politicians to family members and neighbors. Heck, I can remember the old Furnace Street gang discussing the subject. Mickey Mantle, Gene Autry, Ike, Mr. Homrighaus, Coach Crisp, Rev. Thorne, my uncle Bob and Bing Crosby all made the list. Despite the differences of opinion regarding the examples, we adults were in agreement that role models could be helpful for parents seeking to inculcate in their kids the character traits and values essential for happy, successful lives. With all that in mind, I’d like to offer today’s parents of teen-age daughters (attention: Lindsay, Emily, Caroline, Carly, Erin and their girlfriends) a role model for the ages.
Raised along with her younger sister by a single mother who worked long hours to make ends meet, she grew up in the Bronx with an unusually strong work ethic and sense of responsibility for one so young. To help ease the family’s financial burden, she began taking part-time jobs at the age of fourteen, the first being selling concessions at the Statue of Liberty. She flashed her academic talents by graduating in 2001 from Jane Addams High School at the age of 15, demonstrating in the process her expertise at time management. After attending a community college for a couple of semesters, she decided she could further alleviate some of the family’s financial woes and concomitantly do something patriotic for the country she loved by enlisting in the Marine Corps. Only 17 at that time, she had to convince her mother to co-sign the necessary papers.
Her incredible self-discipline and gung-ho attitude enabled her to rise quickly through the ranks. After basic, she was sent to Camp Lejeune where she became a communications specialist and met Cpl. Armand Guzman. They married in 2003, the same year she was deployed to Iraq, serving with the 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force. While trained as a field radio operator, her facile intellect and initiative led superiors to assign her to other duties ranging from equipment purchasing to providing communication support for the Iraqi elections to working at an entry control (check) point in a hotspot called Fallujah where she searched Iraqi women and female children for weapons.
In April of 2005, her mother, sister and two nieces moved to Reading, Pennsylvania. Worried about the effect a toxic environment would have on her family, she told her mom that she’d reenlist for four more years if they didn’t flee the mean streets of the city. Her mother’s response — "I don’t want you to die. I’ll move."
The following June 23rd while returning to the base with her fellow female search team, a suicide bomber crashed his car into their cargo truck killing her along with Petty Officer 1st Class Regina Clark, 43, from Centralia, Washington, and Lance Cpl. Holly Charette, 21, from Cranston, Rhode Island. Also killed were the truck’s assistant driver and machine-gunner. Seven other members of her search team were badly burned or wounded.
The follow-up investigation of this tragedy was particularly disturbing. The search team was sent off in a vehicle with inadequate armor and security was lacking with only two Humvees along as support (local Marine commander left base with four). Most egregious, the lead Humvee driver waved the assassin to the side of the road instead of having him drive ahead-the common procedure given past experiences with car bombers. The cargo truck was a sitting duck. In light of the above, the attack never should have happened.
And so, three days before her 21st birthday, Marine Corporal Ramona (Madelyn to friends) Valdez, the native of the Dominican Republic who dreamed of becoming a Pennsylvania State Trooper and attending a four-year college after mustering out, perished in a fiery explosion. She was supposed to have been sent stateside in May. Her birthday presents, a box of candies, card and SAT books, were in transit as she took her last breath. On June I, 2007, a Marine training facility was named after the heroic Corporal.
As I wrote this, I couldn’t help but think of the single mothers and their daughters who recently fled homelands rife with violence and futureless tomorrows to make the arduous, dangerous journey north in search of asylum and a new beginning in the country whose rise to world prominence was due in no small part to its immigrant population. Imagine their shock when after arriving at what they believed to be "heaven’s gates," their children were ripped from their arms and sent to what for them was a veritable hell from which they might never escape. As bad as the forced removal of Japanese-Americans during World War II was, at least the families weren’t separated. I wondered how many potential Ramonas would never have the opportunity to follow in her path. I wondered where (or if) I would be if my father had been ripped from my Slovenian grandmother’s arms before she passed through the portals of Ellis Island.
Ramona Valdez, the quintessential example of what an immigrant child can do given the chance, is a great role model not only for my granddaughters and nieces and their friends but also for the rest of us. Who wouldn’t want to possess her work ethic, her sense of responsibility, her ability to set a goal and have the willingness to sacrifice whatever it takes to achieve it; to be blessed with empathy and compassion and kindness when dealing with others? Perhaps most importantly, Ramona understood the importance of making the right choice-of taking the time to think before doing. How many of us whose lives are littered with the residue of bad choices regret not having possessed that ability?
By working to instill Ramona’s attributes in our children, we’d be honoring her memory and helping to guarantee that her death was not in vain. In the process, not only would our children become better persons, but so too might we. Rest in peace Cpl. Valdez-an immigrant’s child who died for her adopted country while living her dream. Semper Fi.
Ray Lenarcic is a retired history professor at Herkimer County Community College. He lives in East Herkimer.