Ruben Estrella Sr. and his wife, Estrella talk about their son, Ruben Estrella Jr. in a room dedicated to his memory in their Montana Vista home. Ten years after he deployed to Iraq, his mother still holds out hope he will one day return. (Rudy Gutierrez/El Paso Times)
Ruben Estrella Sr. and his wife, Estrella talk about their son, Ruben Estrella Jr. in a room dedicated to his memory in their Montana Vista home. Ten years after he deployed to Iraq, his mother still holds out hope he will one day return. (Rudy Gutierrez/El Paso Times)

Grieving El Paso mother still dreams of her son Ruben Estrella-Soto’s return

See more photos of The 507th: 10 years later

Amalia Estrella still cries, still begs for answers and now despises the war in Iraq that killed her oldest son and nearly destroyed her family.

“They’ve left us mutilated,” she said, choking back tears.

Estrella, 52, still mourns the son everyone called “Cabezon,” a charismatic young man who loved to dance and paint, worshiped the Pittsburgh Steelers, and often talked too much.

Estrella’s 18-year-old son Army Pvt. Ruben Estrella-Soto Jr. was first reported missing during the early stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom 10 years ago. U.S. troops later found him in a shallowgrave.

He would have turned 29 this April 22.

Estrella Jr., assigned to Fort Bliss’ 507th Maintenance Company, was killed March 23, 2003, just months after he graduated from Mountain View High School in Montana Vista, a mostly impoverished unincorporated community in far east El Paso County.

The Army private and 10 other soldiers died when their convoy was ambushed in Nasiriyah, a city in southern Iraq. Seven soldiers were captured and five others wounded.

The convoy made a wrong turn on Iraqi Highway 7, a turn that transformed Amalia Estrella into a still grieving mother and her husband, Ruben Estrella Sr., into a once angry but now recovered alcoholic.

“This war was useless. The United States won nothing,” she said. “They call my son a hero, but I don’t understand why.”

For a long time, Amalia Estrella became obsessed thinking about her son. She would talk to him, see apparitions of him, and sometimes even imagined the children he never fathered.

Estrella Jr. said he would return home, get married and enroll in college, perhaps to study architecture or engineering. Amalia Estrella went through counseling to try to cope with her loss.

An Army chaplain persaded the Estrellas not to view their son’s badly decomposed body in a sealed casket.

“We survive with hope,” Amalia Estrella said. “I wait day by day for mijo to return. I can’t stop thinking that maybe he didn’t die.”

* * *

The memory of Ruben Estrella Jr. lives on.

El Paso County dedicated a memorial park in his honor.

His image is memorialized in the lobby of San Juan Diego Catholic Church, where the Estrella family worships.

Some community leaders have urged the Clint Independent School District to name a school in honor of Estrella Jr., one of the first casualties in the U.S. invasion of Iraq 10 years ago.

A norteño conjunto composed a corrido as a tribute to Estrella Jr. The young soldier’s name is enshrined in a memorial at Fort Bliss, where the now defunct 507th Maintenance Company, a combat troop support unit, started its fateful journey.

A nephew and other relatives born after the ambush on the 507th Maintenance Company have been named after Ruben Estrella Jr.

The Estrellas erected a memorial shrine outside and inside their stuccoed house in the far East El Paso desert.

The U.S. and Mexican flags, symbolic of the younger Estrella’s dual heritage, frame an outdoor memorial in the family’s front yard. He was born in Juárez and later became a naturalized U.S. citizen.

An entire room has been filled with mementos, stuffed animals, pictures left at the young soldier’s grave at Fort Bliss National Cemetery, handmade quilts, plaques of every conceivable size, gifts sent by veterans and other soldiers, cardboard cutouts of Ruben Estrella Jr., and various religious icons.

A mural of Ruben Estrella Jr. covers an entire wall.

* * *

The Rev. Ed Roden-Lucero, pastor of San Juan Diego Catholic Church in Montana Vista, recalls that Estrella Jr. had gone through the church’s confirmation program not long before he joined the Army.

Roden-Lucero put a portrait of Estrella Jr. in the church lobby as a tribute to him and his family. The shrine includes a quote that Pope Paul VI used in addressing the United Nations in 1964: “No more war. War never again.” The quote is also meant to teach children not to settle problems with violence and fighting.

“I do not know how Dick Cheney (former vice president) and George Bush (former president) can sleep soundly knowing that under false pretenses they took this country to war and cost 4,000 lives and others that came back without legs and arms and eyes. Then they had the audacity to accuse critics of the war of being treasonous and unpatriotic,” Roden-Lucero said. “They committed crimes against humanity in initiating that war under false pretenses. They endorsed torture and killed 80,000 to 100,000 Iraqis.”

Roden-Lucero remembers the “long agonizing month” that it took the military to send Estrella Jr.’s remains to El Paso, a month in which the community did everything possible to support the Estrella family.

At the funeral Mass, with the world press in the audience, Roden-Lucero angrily criticized the United States for endorsing what he described as “Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians.”

“Ruben and everybody who lost their life really did pay the supreme sacrifice,” Roden-Lucero said in a recent interview. “But their nobility and sacrifice doesn’t take away from the fact that it was an unjust war. It was unjust for our leaders to take away the sons and daughters of these families.”

***

Ten years later, Ruben Estrella Sr., 53, — the owner of a small auto body repair shop — talks openly about how he became an alcoholic and temporarily lost his faith after his son’s death in Iraq. Today, he starts his days praying in a chapel-like room dedicated to his son’s memory.

“War does not destroy just the individual soldier, it destroys an entire family,” the elder Estrella said. “We were together but torn apart, all of us in our own little world.”

Ruben Estrella Jr.’s parents and a younger brother and sister alienated themselves from each other while grieving. His father started drinking heavily and often would sneak into the cemetery and drink all night.

“You become bitter in your own pain,” he said. “A blow like this causes you to doubt. I lost my faith in God. When I drank, I’d curse God out of anger.”

Ruben Estrella stills visits his son’s grave weekly, this time sober. He found refuge in an Alcoholics Anonymous program that he still attends.

“I thank God I overcame my alcoholism,” he said. “If not, perhaps I would be alone or dead by now.”

He is somewhat comforted knowing that his son was in the convoy because he swapped places with a fellow soldier expecting a telephone call from a pregnant wife about to deliver back in the states.

Ruben Estrella did not approve of his son joining the Army.

“But the recruiter came and never let go. He flattered my boy and made him all kinds of promises,” he said.

Estrella Jr. did his basic training in South Carolina. Before he went to Iraq, he bought his father a big-screen television. Later, he said goodbye to the family in front of the humble mobile home where they lived at the time.

“I don’t know if he knew his destiny but he would jokingly say, ‘You’re going to feel proud when they give you my flag at the funeral,’ ” Estrella said.

Now, Ruben Estrella wonders whether the sacrifice of his son and other servicemen and women in Iraq was necessary.

“George Bush is now living the good life while some of us continue to suffer,” he said.

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