Marcos Breton

Marcos Breton

Marcos Breton: Her brother's remains, lost in Korea since 1951, are recovered

Published: Sunday, Jun. 2, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Wednesday, Jun. 5, 2013 - 9:13 am

The invitation could not be denied: "Mr. Breton … Would you be interested to talk to me about my brother? He was lost in Korea in 1951 and has just been found," Virginia Alvarez Romans wrote to me last week.

"The Army Dept. of Personnel is coming to talk to me on Wednesday."

You hear of families recovering the remains of soldiers decades after they were killed in battle, but this was nearly 62 years later.

I wondered if the story could be true as I drove down a tree-lined street south of William Land Park to meet the 87-year-old woman while she was being briefed on the discovery of her brother's remains, a lifetime after he went missing during the Korean War.

But the story was all too true.

Two military officials, one in full dress uniform, sat in Mrs. Alvarez's front room and gently guided her through the details of her brother's death – an event that colored her life and filled her with resentments and regrets that were constant companions for decades.

"I was the one who suggested to my brother that he join the military," Alvarez told me. Her face registered no emotion, but her eyes projected a hurt beyond words. "I had felt like I sent him to his death."

A dossier compiled by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Hawaii contained a photo of an exhumed grave with the partial remains of a skeleton. There was a jawbone, remnants of a shoulder, an arm and a few bones from a human pelvis.

I asked if the photo was of someone other than Mrs. Alvarez's brother, used simply to illustrate the kind of work that led to her brother's identification.

"No," said Karen A. Johnson of the U.S Army Human Resources Command, who traveled to Sacramento from Fort Knox, Ky., for the solemn occasion. "That is Cpl. Armando Alvarez."

"He was only 20 when he died," Mrs. Alvarez said. "He was working in a bottling factory. I don't think he had finished high school and I said, 'Why don't you join the Army? Then when you get out, you can go to college on the GI Bill."

Armando Alvarez took his big sister's advice.

"He was only a month away from being discharged when he went overseas. We didn't think anything of it. We had no idea," she said.

Today, she recalls a beautiful infant four years her junior. He was so photogenic; he won a local beautiful-baby contest. She remembers a tough kid "who could lick anyone his size," but had a gentle nature.

"I once made him so mad sparks flew from his eyes, but he would never hurt anyone … . Of all the people to end up in hell, he was the last person I would ever imagine."

The form of hell to which Cpl. Alvarez was deployed for a battle is only now gaining widespread recognition.

In December 1950, GIs like Alvarez were suffering through the coldest winter in memory on the Korean peninsula. They were punished with temperatures as low as 30 degrees below zero and terrorized by bombs that burned victims alive.

That's when 30,000 U.S. and British troops squared off against 80,000 Chinese soldiers, according to a CNN report.

The Chinese People's Volunteer forces overran American troops along the Chosin reservoir. In the dossier presented to Mrs. Alvarez, there is even mention of American troops being accidentally hit with napalm by U.S. forces.

Mrs. Alvarez learned an approximate date of her brother's death just last week: Dec 2, 1950. More than 3,000 U.S. troops were killed in 17 days of fighting, according to CNN.

Cpl. Alvarez's body was buried in a mass grave that would not be exhumed until 2004, when a brief thaw in the United States' icy relations with North Korea allowed for the search of war dead on North Korean soil. It took another eight years before Cpl. Alvarez's remains could be positively identified.

More than 83,000 Americans are still missing from U.S. wars, according to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command's website. On the island of Oahu, the forensics arm of JPAC utilizes the largest skeletal laboratory in the world and state-of-the-art scientific methods to identify fallen soldiers so they can be reunited with their families and receive funerals with full military honors.

The Army first notified Mrs. Alvarez about her brother's remains in April, and she received her military visitors last week. In January 1951, her family had been informed by telegram that her brother was presumed dead. But that's all they knew.

"We were all together. It was so bleak. So empty and cold," she said. "My other brother was more emotional, but I've never cried. I've never shed a tear for my brother."

What did she feel? "It was pain. It was bitterness. For a while, I thought I would go crazy. I thought, 'My God, I sent him to his death.' "

Every Aug. 18, she remembered his birthday. With every personal or national milestone, she wondered what her brother would have thought. "How he would have loved 'Star Trek,' " she said. "When we sent men to the moon, I wondered what he would have thought."

Mostly, she paused over a thought that never went away. "He went to war not knowing how much we loved him," she said.

But what if he did know?

When our loved ones die, all of us can torture ourselves with questions that can never be answered by the person we miss.

"Maybe he did know. I hope so," she said. "Everyone has holes in them that can't be filled … . But when I got this news, I felt a weight had been lifted off my shoulders."

"Why should I feel any different? The fact that he was found doesn't change anything. But I was carrying a weight, and it wasn't there anymore. I don't feel the guilt anymore."

All that's left now is to plan the funeral that will finally lay her brother to rest.

Call The Bee's Marcos Breton, (916) 321-1096. Back columns, Follow him on Twitter @marcosbreton.

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Read more articles by Marcos Breton

Marcos Breton, news columnist

Marcos Breton

Hello, my name is Marcos Breton and I'm the news columnist with The Sacramento Bee. What's a columnist supposed to do? I'm supposed to make you think, make you laugh, make you mad or make you see an issue in a different way. I'm supposed to connect the dots on issues, people and relationships that cause things to happen or prevent them from happening in our region. I also write a weekly baseball column during the baseball season. I am a voter in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Yes, I have voted for Barry Bonds - twice. I am a native of Northern California. I am the son of Mexican immigrants. I've been at The Bee for more than 20 years, and I love Sacramento.

Phone: 916-321-1096
Twitter: @MarcosBreton

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