Courtesy of Monica Velez
Monica Velez and her two brothers, Freddy (left) and Andrew, in 1996. Freddy died in Iraq in 2004, and Andrew died in Afghanistan in 2006.
Monica Velez and her two brothers, Freddy (left) and Andrew, in 1996. Freddy died in Iraq in 2004, and Andrew died in Afghanistan in 2006. Courtesy of Monica Velez
Cpl. Jose "Freddy" Velez served in Iraq. His brother, Spc. Andrew Velez, deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Both died in their early 20s. They are survived by their sister, Monica.
"My mom left us when I was 7, so my dad was a single parent," Monica says. "And I did all the household chores. I got the boys dressed for school, I taught them how to ride their bike, I taught them how to read and write."
One of her favorite memories is when both brothers came back from basic training and told her she could no longer be bossy.
"I couldn't tell them what to do or what to wear. And they kind of started telling me how to grow up and live my life as a young adult, instead of acting like a mother," she tells her fiancé, Christopher Hernandez.
She didn't get to see Andrew before he deployed — he left straight from basic training. Freddy left for Iraq shortly after that. Monica was nervous, and scared.
"I remember there was this string of lights at the restaurant where I worked at," she says. "And I thought if I lost my brothers, it would be like if you cut both sides of that string of lights and that middle light would just fall and break."
She didn't think she would make it, and "it was such a good feeling when they would call home." The brothers' accounts of their time in the field were very different, though.
"Andrew would be very descriptive. He'd just let you know, 'I can smell dead bodies,' and, 'When you shoot somebody they don't get back up.' He would just tell us what it was," Monica says. "Freddy was more private about it. He always made everything sound like he was lying on the beach, taking in the sun, having martinis. He never made it sound like it was bad. I think Freddy was more trying to like protect us."
Freddy, 23, was killed in action in Iraq in 2004. Andrew was asked to escort Freddy's body back to the U.S. Monica talked to him throughout the trip.
"He started telling me these horrible things about how every time they stopped, they would make him open Freddy's bag up, and he'd have to look at Freddy's body," she says.
Monica didn't know what to do or how to help. Posthumously, Freddy was promoted to corporal and received the Silver Star for outstanding service.
Two years later, Andrew committed suicide in Afghanistan. He was 22 and had previously been awarded the Army Commendation Medal.
"My brothers were like my soul mates, and when my dad passes away, there won't be anybody else but me. I just miss my brothers," Monica says. "I try to remind myself every day that I have to earn what I get to love each day. It's a gift."
Audio produced for Weekend Edition Saturday by Yasmina Guerda.