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The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

A Cherished Reunion; A Father Celebrates Having His Sons Home From Their Military Duties


October 17, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

Jorge Diaz wiped the tears from his eyes on Saturday as the man with the flute played "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." One by one, greeters arrived, hugging Diaz and wishing him well.

"God is good to me," said Diaz as he glanced at his two sons, Nelson, 26, a Marine just home from Iraq, and Jorge Diaz-Morales, 30, an electrical engineer for the Air Force who is on leave between tours in Italy and Washington D.C.

So many nights, Diaz worried himself sick about his sons, he said. To have them close at hand at last was a relief so intense that it made him weak.

"My heart is like this," said the elder Diaz, spreading his hands wide. His sons, dashing in their uniforms, made their way around their father's bar, JJ Brothers Tavern on S. 13th St., to visit with friends and relatives.

Diaz, a native of Puerto Rico, has seen many families grieve the deaths of their children killed at war.

"I turn on the TV, and there it is," he said. "Too sad. I cry."

So, when Nelson, an expert rifleman and military escort specialist, came home last week from Ramadi, Iraq, the family decided to celebrate while they could. In a happy coincidence, the older brother's leave came at the same time. Nelson doesn't know if he will be redeployed to Iraq. He has two more years to serve on his eight-year commitment. Jorge Jr. served in Kuwait four years ago but doesn't expect to be sent to Iraq because the kind of work he does is concentrated in Washington, D.C.

"You hear so much about the ones who are killed. We wanted to show that there is hope for those families out there waiting for their sons and daughters to return home," said Cheryl Arellano, Diaz's girlfriend.

Nelson lost 30 pounds in the seven months he spent in Iraq.

"Stress," he said. "And heat. It was 120 degrees some days. An oven."

He would e-mail his family each day and call when he could. But that sometimes only heightened the tension.

"I could hear the bombs exploding in the background," said Magalys Diaz, Nelson's wife. "Once, the phone went dead and I didn't hear from him again for two days. It was really scary. I prayed a lot."

Nelson and Magalys met at the Pfister Hotel seven years ago. He was a porter. She worked in the gift shop. At 2, their daughter, Ilianexys, is too young to understand the gravity of her father's assignment. Nelson kissed the top of Ilianexys's head as Magalys straightened the little girl's pigtails.

"This is all I thought about over there," he said.

A man in Nelson's company was killed a few months ago and 16 soldiers in his battery of about 200 were wounded in the time he was in Iraq. But Nelson tries not to let that distract him from the job he was trained to do. Nor will he question whether the war is worth the cost.

"We go where our commander in chief sends us," he said.

Nelson said he was proud to try to bring peace to Iraq. His sister, Nadya, who is just 11, spent $20 of her own money to send him school supplies for the children of Iraq.

"They know we care about them," Nelson said. "That made me feel so good."

Still, he doesn't see an end to the killing over there.

"People need to understand that this will take a long time," he said.

Cousins and neighbors arrived with aluminum tins filled with rice and beans and other Puerto Rican delicacies while the men out back roasted a pig.

Willie Torres, the man with the flute, took requests: "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," "America the Beautiful," "Yellow Bird."

Juan Garcia, 44, took in the scene with pride and a sense of deja vu. His son, Juan III, arrived home safely in May from Iraq. They celebrated his return with a party at JJ Brothers.

"I know how happy this day is," said Garcia.

Garcia said he grieves for those who have lost family members in war. But he believes that the United States has an obligation to try to enforce freedom around the globe, even at such a cost.

"Here is my favorite quote," he said, pulling an index card from his wallet. "For those fighting for it, freedom has a flavor that the protected will never know."

Jorge Jr. is off to Washington, D.C., soon where he will resume his work in electrical engineering for the Air Force. He has just nine more credits to earn before receiving a degree in that discipline from the University of Maryland. He was especially glad to be home for a few days so he could see his 4-year-old daughter, Tatiana.

Nelson returns to the base at Twentynine Palms, Calif., in about two weeks. His wife and daughter will meet him there in December after Magalys finishes her undergraduate degree at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

U.S. Marine Nelson Diaz shares a moment with his wife, Magalys, and their daughter, Ilianexys, 2, at JJ Brothers Tavern in Milwaukee on Saturday. (Right) Nelson's brother, Jorge Diaz-Morales, holds his daughter, Tatiana, 4. The brothers were home from their posts in Iraq and Washington, D.C.

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