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Soldier's Wife Hopes, Worries

Iraida Matias, nine months pregnant with her first child, spent Christmas with her family in Hialeah -- but her thoughts were with her husband in Iraq.


January 13, 2005
Copyright © 2005 MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved.

If Javier had been home for Christmas, she would have gone all out.

He loves cologne, so there would have been plenty of it.

And he loves Emeril Lagasse, so she would have planned a trip to the celebrity chef's New Orleans restaurant.

''What I wouldn't have gotten him!'' said Iraida Matias, wife of Staff Sgt. Javier Matias, dreamily considering the possibilities.

But Javier, a Miami Beach police officer, United States Marine Corps veteran of Operation Desert Storm, and Army reservist, is somewhere in Iraq, so his wife had to settle for more practical gifts: Ziploc bags. Snack foods. The $200 air compressor his troops needed to blow the sand out of their weapons.

He was activated on May 30. There they were in her obstetrician's office, with Iraida still on the examining table, and ''a second'' after they learned she was pregnant with their first child, his cellphone rang.

''I froze,'' recalled Iraida, whose baby is due in a few weeks. 'He told his sergeant: `You have no idea how you are affecting me.' ''

She's 28; he's 34. When he left, they hadn't finished working on the West Miami home they'd spent five years renovating.

They were a team. He'd do the shopping and cooking; she'd do the housework. He'd wash the dishes; she'd dry. They planned their lives carefully: saving for a house, getting their educations, waiting to have a child until they could afford it.

''I'm very organized and I love to plan,'' said Iraida, who's already keeping a baby book. ``Then something happens that you don't plan for.''

Like the call-up for an 18-month tour with the 260th Military Intelligence Battalion -- 22 months, if you count the four months of training in Washington, D.C., and Texas before Javier left.

''I don't think anybody knows how hard this really is,'' said Iraida, digging into a plate of Christmas morning scrambled eggs that her mother made. ``Your life never feels complete.''

But Javier loves the military, she said, so he prepared himself and her for the inevitability of active duty.

''He always says there's a purpose for everything,'' she said, both hands absently rubbing her belly. 'He's for the war if it's needed, and says, `If I don't go, my son will have to.' ''

She's not so sure it's needed anymore, although she sees the war as a proper response to the 9/11 attacks.

She doesn't watch the news, and Javier doesn't talk about his mission, just as he seldom spoke of Desert Storm or about his job as a police officer.

''I get mad,'' she said. ``Not at God but at the world and at President Bush because it's over oil. . . . If a woman ever needs her husband, it's when she's pregnant.''


Javier has already warned her that he might be ''a little different.'' He told her before he left. ' `If I'm stressed out, give me some time to adjust.' But he's strong,'' she said, ``strong enough to control his emotions.''

So is Iraida, at least when she's talking to her husband on his satellite phone or when she's with friends and relatives. She knows she can't upset Javier, because it's tough enough where he is.

She held it together without him during their fifth wedding anniversary on Dec. 4, and during graduation on Dec. 19 from Barry University, where she earned a bachelor's degree in professional administration.

She worked eight years for the University of Miami's facilities planning division until leaving for full-time studies last year.

''I'm not so stressed out that I can't take care of my home and my [two] dogs,'' she said.

But sometimes when she's alone -- when she thinks about how Javier hasn't seen the baby's room now that it's painted, or how he won't be with her during delivery of Jose Alfredo Matias -- she comes apart.

''I cry my eyes out,'' she admitted, as her mother prepared a holiday dinner of rice and beans, yuca, ribs and tamales. ``But I don't want to get depressed. It's not good for the baby.''

On Christmas Day, Iraida was buoyant, almost giddy, tearing into gifts with her sister, Johanna Rivero, 21, and brother-in-law Michel Rivero.

They have a cottage behind the Hialeah home of the sisters' parents, Jose and Zenaida Alfonso: a landscaper and a school custodian, respectively.

There were perfumes and lotions for Iraida, tiny clothes and toys for the baby. Cousins dropped in to exchange gifts, drink a beer, spin cotton candy and chat on the broad patio that functions as an outdoor living room, wrapped in the pungent smoke of barbecuing meats.

''This is so cute!'' she cooed, nuzzling a teddy bear that recites a bedtime prayer: ``Now I lay me down to sleep . . .''

She peeled Winnie the Pooh-themed wrapping paper off a box of chocolate-nut truffles and declared: ``These are Javie's favorites!''

Showing off a toddler-sized outfit of shorts, plaid shirt and sandals, she chirped, ``Papi will love this.''

They met when she was an 18-year-old checkout clerk at an office supply store. He was paying at another register and she could feel him staring. He wrote his name and number on a card and gave it to her.

He'd also written: ``I think you are very beautiful.''

Iraida arrived in Miami with her parents from Cuba during the Mariel boatlift of 1980, when she was 3.

They moved in with relatives, including other refugees: 21 people in a two-bathroom house for seven months, until everyone got situated.

Javier's parents, of North Miami Beach, came from Puerto Rico. He was born in Chicago.


In his absence, Johanna stays with Iraida.

''I'll be with her until Javie comes back,'' she said. ``But when we go through the ultrasounds and checkups, I feel bad that I'm taking his place.''

Michel and other male relatives have finished the work on the house. The Alfonsos have set aside a bedroom for Iraida and the baby.

Johanna says her sister is usually strong and positive, but as Christmas drew near, she ''seemed more down.'' And she's worried about Javier, a bodybuilder who looks ''skinny'' in recent pictures. She wonders if he's depressed.

But Iraida said that in a recent e-mail, he told Johanna ``he has peace of mind knowing my family is helping me. He said he'd be a nervous wreck otherwise and wouldn't be able to concentrate and would get himself killed.

``In this situation, you have to separate your mind from your heart.''

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