Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Alexander Gagalac remembered

The shrine in the Salt Lake home has grown since Army Sgt. Alexander Gagalac's death Sept. 9 in Iraq, visible evidence of the lives he touched, and a mounting realization that he really is gone.

In the family's home, busy with people and renovations and the need to make funeral arrangements, his mother, Regina, sits at a folding table and sorts photos and newspaper clippings.

Just a few feet away, the homemade memorial covers another table, at the center of which is a pair of desert boots he had left at home. There are now about a dozen framed photos of Alexander, and twin American flags sprout from a lei-draped photo on the wall.

There are vigil candles and flowers and kukui nut lei from a memorial service at Schofield Barracks, where he was based.

Among Regina Gagalac's photos of her twin sons, Alexander and Alexis, the last she will ever have of them together, are images of the two men smiling on the beach in Hale'iwa, flanking their 4-year-old niece, Jace-Lynn Tolentino.

They were taken in March when Alexander, a 1997 Leilehua High School graduate, was home on rest and recuperation leave.

The 28-year-old was killed in Hawija, 30 miles southwest of Kirkuk, with only about a week left to serve in Iraq. He would have returned home this week, possibly yesterday.

"We are sad. We cry a lot," Regina Gagalac said. "There is nothing more that we can do but face all the sadness in our hearts."

"We're learning how to accept it, to know that we won't see him again," said Alexander's sister, Grace Tolentino, as Jace-Lynn ran around.

While literally thousands of Schofield Barracks soldiers stream home to joyful reunions after more than a year in northern Iraq, Regina Gagalac sorts through the precious photos, and prepares for this week's funeral services for her son.


In the sad and largely invisible calculus of the Iraq war, approximately 7,000 Schofield soldiers left for the Middle East in July and August of 2006, and 41 families did not have loved ones return.

Other soldiers suffered horrific injuries, and the additional pain of losing buddies. Spc. Fred Meyers, who survived being shot in the head by a sniper in Kirkuk in May, was treated in the field by medic Cpl. Josh Harmon, who was killed along with nine other Schofield soldiers in the Aug. 22 crash of a Black Hawk helicopter.

Alexander Gagalac will be buried with full military honors Thursday at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl.

Prayer services have been held nightly at the Gagalac home, and sometimes up to 30 family and friends are present. More family is coming in from Chicago and California for the funeral.

"Having family members around, of course it's helped," Tolentino said.

But having family around can provide a distraction from the pain for only so long.

The Army told Fabian and Regina Gagalac that an improvised explosive device that was like a rocket-propelled grenade, but stronger, hit their son's Humvee.

They know the extent of his injuries, and that he was killed instantly.

But Regina Gagalac, a real estate broker, doesn't understand and struggles with how only her son could have been killed in the vehicle, although several other soldiers were wounded with injuries the family said the Army didn't specify.

She draws out on paper the seating configuration of the Humvee the Army drew out for her. Alexander Gagalac was in the front passenger seat of the lead vehicle in a convoy, his parents said.


"He never mentioned any danger," Regina Gagalac said.

She didn't know Iraq geography other than Baghdad, and Alexander would remind his mother that he wasn't there.

"He would always call me and let me know he was good," she said. "I would always say, 'How are you, Sonny?' and he would say, 'I'm talking to you, Mom, I'm still alive.' "

In fact, Alexander Gagalac was with the 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry "Wolfhounds" in the Hawija area, a Sunni Arab enclave and one of the more dangerous places for Schofield soldiers on the deployment.

Out of 41 Schofield deaths in a Pennsylvania-sized region of northern Iraq on this deployment, 12 occurred in the vicinity of Hawija, population 80,000.

The twin brothers joined the Army together in 2002 and told their parents only afterward. Both were in Iraq in 2004. Alexis Gagalac now is in the Hawai'i Army National Guard. There also is an older brother, Charles.


On his MySpace blog, Alexander wrote: "For the past 13 months I have been living in a place that time forgot 'Iraq.' Now it is finally coming to an end with a few weeks to go. I can't wait to be home with family and friends. This has been a long time coming and it's gonna feel a lot longer as it comes to those last hours that I'm here. The taste of freedom is going to be sweet."


Regina Gagalac is bitter toward the country that claimed her son's life.

"We are protecting someone who doesn't even make the move to protect themselves," she said. "My son said, 'Oh, those Iraqis, they are just coming to get paid with the dollar.' Those words (came from) my son."

The last time she spoke to him was on Sept. 8. He called to wish his mom a happy birthday.

"It hurts and it hurts," she said, the emotion welling up inside. "I'm just trying to survive every minute of the day. I'm trying to wipe (the pain) away, but it doesn't get out. Every time I remember his smile and saying to me, 'Good morning, Mom.' When he came home for (rest and recuperation in March) I didn't know it was the last time I would see him."

She wants her son to be remembered for his service to the country. The funeral services are open to the public.

Visitation will be from 5:30 to 9 p.m. Wednesday at Mililani Memorial Park and Mortuary's mauka chapel in Waipi'o, off Ka Uka Boulevard.

On Thursday, visitation will begin at 9 a.m., followed by Mass from 11 a.m. to noon at the St. John Apostle and Evangelist Church in Mililani.

After the Mass, a full military honors ceremony and burial will take place at Punchbowl.

On Alexander Gagalac's marker will be the place where he gave his life, "Persian Gulf, Iraq," and his family's enduring words for him: "Always loved and in our hearts."

From the Honolulu Advertiser

Related Link:
Alexander U. Gagalac dies 'of wounds suffered when insurgents attacked his unit with a rocket during combat operations'