Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Joseph Anzack comes home

Hard swallows, trembling hands. A left heel tapping rhythmically on the pavement - one, two, three, four. Tight hugs.

They waited anxiously, their eyes fixed on the gray morning skies, their nerves more apparent with every plane that rumbled into sight. Their boy was finally coming home.

A hero, a brother, a soldier, a son.

It wasn't the return they envisioned when he left.

"We wanted so much for Joseph to come home. We were going to have a big parade," mother Theresa Anzack said, gazing out the window of the small charter terminal at Los Angeles International Airport. "We had plans. I had dreams for him. Getting his first place, falling in love, grandchildren. What a proud grandmother I would be."

Found dead last week in Iraq, Pfc. Joseph Anzack Jr., 20, of Torrance, arrived back in Southern California late Tuesday morning in a somber airfield ceremony.

Greeted by a 10-man Army honor guard, dozens of area law enforcement officers and his immediate family, the 2005 South High School graduate was received with a stirring silence of steady salutes and gentle tears far louder than the roar of jets overhead. His coffin was wrapped tightly in the American flag.

Standing tall, his jaw clenched firmly, father Joseph Anzack Sr. placed his hand on the flag, holding it there for a long minute. With one arm around her mother, sister Casey, 16, leaned down and kissed the colorful cloth.
Anzack's mother, Theresa, draped herself over the coffin gently, carefully, slowly running her hand back and forth as if to soothe her son one final time.

"The day that they came to say they had found Joseph, minutes before they came ... I had just talked on the phone to Casey and I said a prayer in my car," she recalled later. "I remember saying, `Lord, I don't think I can take much more. I don't think Joseph can take much more. Please bring my son home.'

"He answered my prayer. It wasn't the answer I wanted, but He showed mercy. And my son is home."

It was one week ago today that Anzack Jr.'s body was pulled from the Euphrates River south of Baghdad. His patrol had been ambushed some dozen days prior. Five men were killed in the attack; Anzack and two others went missing.

An al Qaida-affiliated group claimed it all.

The Anzack family has been waiting ever since.

As thousands of troops mobilized day after day to search for the missing infantrymen, they waited for word of a rescue.

When reports surfaced last Wednesday that an American soldier had been found dead, shot in the head and chest, they waited for confirmation that it wasn't Joseph. Then came the knock at the door, and with it the news they never wanted.

So began the Anzacks' waiting for Joe Jr.'s final return, the homecoming of their boy, a brother, a former football star, a gadget and gaming fan who as a young soldier on the eve of his departure for Iraq did a karaoke duet with his dad - Clint Black's "Killin' Time" - at a jam-packed going-away party.

Those were among the many memories that Joseph Sr., Theresa and Casey shared over several hours Tuesday, when they greeted the fallen soldier at LAX, followed his coffin to a Torrance mortuary in a police procession and finished with a prayer at "Burnout Beach" in Torrance. Theresa used to take her kids to watch the sunset there.

"I'm not angry," Theresa said. "I'm not angry today. I don't know what will happen tomorrow.

"But we're OK, you know. We're gonna be OK ... we'll just take things as they come."

Theresa is the family's spiritual center. Her faith is palpable but easygoing, comforting. It keeps her calm and soothes everyone around her.

"I believe in what I don't see because of the things that I do see," Theresa said, five silver crosses dangling from a bracelet around her wrist.

"This has brought us all closer together, to walk through Joseph's life," she continued. "Walking through his life now and really seeing the man he became in spite of all the hurdles he had to go through ..."

"... he was fearless," father Anzack Sr. interjected. "That's the way he walked through his life."

"My own outlook on life is changing now. My direction. I'm not sure how yet, but things have changed in me."

Sister Casey is a quiet caretaker, a comforter.

Anzack squeezes Casey's shoulders in return, pulling her into his chest, now and then kissing her forehead with gentle precision.

"I miss my brother," Casey said softly as the three - along with a family pastor and Anzack Sr.'s girlfriend, DeeDee Madrid (he and Theresa split up several years ago) - embraced at the beach.

Theresa's hand moved up to touch the back of Casey's head.

"I know," mother said softly to daughter.

After two public services this week in Torrance, Anzack Jr. will be flown to Washington, D.C., for a full-honors burial at Arlington National Cemetery. He will also receive a posthumous promotion to the rank of corporal.

"Bless his heart," Theresa Anzack said. "His brave heart. My brave son."

From the Press Telegram

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