THE BLOG

Johnny Came Home

08/07/2005 09:14 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Every time I hear a report of another American dying in Iraq, I find myself thinking of Johnny and Nancili Mata. They were young lovers who met during high school in their home town of Pecos, Texas on the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert. Desiccated by the relentless sun, Pecos is still the setting of romantic western stories and the location where the American sport of rodeo was born.

America paid little note to the passing of Johnny Mata. We all read reports and listened to stories of the faux heroics of Jessica Lynch, who was in Johnny's unit. He died in the opening days of the war in Iraq, and his small town American storybook life ended in an early, needless tragedy. To me, Johnny Mata's story is all of their stories. And I have no idea how we can continue to let this happen.

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The little girl sat at the table with her face leaning close to a small piece of paper. Her dark, bobbed hair swung forward, slightly obscuring the soft curve of her cheeks. She did not notice her mother enter the room.

“What are you doing, mija?” her mother asked.

“I’m writing daddy a note.” She answered without looking up, her concentration focused on the careful shaping of words and letters.

“Oh, mija.”

Nancili Mata wanted to cry. Instead, she smiled, and did not let emotion take control of her. When she surrenders to her sadness, she does so in private.

“I have to be strong because if I’m not my little girl will see me, and then she’ll hurt more than I will,” she told me.

At age seven, Stephani Mata had the oversized, startled eyes of a child finding amazement in the mundane. A happiness moves across her round face, and it rarely disappears. She has figured out a way to deal with a sadness no child should ever have to confront.

“They are just so sweet when she writes them,” Nancili said. “They make me want to cry. But I don’t. I won’t let myself.”

The notes began appearing after the funeral out in Pecos. Nancili found them stuck to pictures of her husband, Johnny. In the hallway of their new home, or on shelves, anywhere there was a photo of Johnny Mata, a message from Stephani might be attached.

“Dear daddy,” she wrote on one. “I miss you. But I know you are happy up in heaven with Jesus. Love, Stephani.”

Johnny Villareal Mata and his wife, Nancili, were supposed to grow gray together in the house he had bought for her in the North Hills area of El Paso. In seventh grade, she had told the shy Johnny, “You’re going to be mine.” He only smiled, unaware that the entire course of his life might be determined by the strong-willed girl and her unabashed honesty.

Nancili got what she wanted, though, because it made Johnny so happy to provide for her dreams. The house at the foot of the Franklin Mountains, however, was also a dream of his. As a Chief Warrant Officer in the U.S. Army, Johnny had managed his money well enough that they were able to build a new home with a two car garage, and a view of the Franklins out of almost every window.

“In a way, I felt like a queen,” Nancili said. “Johnny and I, we had known each other for fifteen years, and I think the longer we knew each other, the better we were. At the end, he was like, ‘Okay, this is your dream. I bought you a house.’”

Every day, the mountains across from her new home have a different look. Nancili Mata notices how the light changes the color of the rock, and the softening created by a passing cloud obscuring the sun. The desert heat can give the Franklins a frightening sharpness before they are colored, and made inviting by the long light of a new morning. She feels this way, too. There are dramatic changes inside of Nancili, and she struggles to be strong, to understand.

“I have my days. I like to go to the cemetery in Pecos and do my talking to Johnny. Most of the time at the cemetery, when I start getting depressed, I pray, and it helps.”

Almost a hundred people showed up at the home of Domingo and Elvira Mata the first night news came that their son, Johnny, was missing in Iraq a few days after the invasion had been launched. Each night, a priest performed a rosary, and prayers were offered for Johnny’s safe return. The crowds and the candles did not go away until Johnny’s casket, being transported by the army, was met at the Reeves County line by police cruisers. Thousands lined the roadways, silently watching the procession, holding up candles in the 3:30 a.m. desert darkness. When he was buried, half of the 10,000 population of Pecos surrounded the church, or stood in the withering desert heat at the graveyard, waiting for the arrival of Johnny’s funeral cortege.

Nancili did not get to see her husband for a final time when his body was returned. Brutalized by gun fire, she became convinced what was left was not the man she loved.

“I thought about seeing his body, and then another day I talked to my priest, the chaplain, and it made me realize it wasn’t gonna be Johnny any more,” she told me. “It was just a body. And the way my husband always was, he was clean, always good-looking, detailed, and he would like to be remembered the way he was. I was speaking to the funeral person, and he said he didn’t even get to see him because he [Johnny] was so wrapped up in a blanket. I think we made a pretty good decision, and I’m pretty comfortable with that.”

Everything Johnny and Nancili Mata had dreamed about was killed in that Iraqi ambush in Al Nasiriyah. Settling into his duty station at Fort Bliss, Texas, Johnny Mata decided to invest his savings in the new home. In January 2003, Stephani, and her big brother, Eric, moved into their own bedrooms. Before the family had finished unpacking boxes, however, Johnny got orders for overseas deployment. While his family adjusted to the new house, he was packing bags for a long trip. By March of that year, Johnny Mata was in Kuwait.

“We made a video the night he left, and you could hardly see Johnny because Stephani was all over him. Every time you look at the picture, she’s climbing all over her daddy.” Nancili drew her index finger across the recesses below each eye, pressing away the tears. “Stephani is such a daddy’s girl.”

Johnny Mata was movie star handsome. A photo that circulated in his hometown of Pecos, Texas, showed him with his strong, angled jaw tilted slightly upward, dark, wavy hair shining in the sun, and a smile that dominated all of his other distinguishing features. Nothing, his family said, ever deterred Johnny. Even Pecos, suffering a kind of dry desperation on the northern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert, did not wear down Johnny Mata the way it did so many of the other young people. Great commerce, and big dreams have never come closer to Pecos than the eighteen wheelers howling past out on Interstate 20. But none of that ever affected Johnny’s attitude. He loved his parents, Domingo and Elvira, and his four brothers and sister. He loved his wife, and his children. And he loved his country, so much that he was willing to go to war.

“He always wanted to serve his country that way,” Nancili said. “The reason that it didn’t bother me was because I would see it in his heart. If he wanted to do anything, it was like excitement. You would see that glow. You would see that glow.”

While Nancili spoke, an old-timers’ baseball game was being played on a nearly grassless ball diamond beyond a tall fence. On the outfield wall, carnations, made out of tissue, spelled out the message, “In your honor, Johnny.” A blast furnace wind meant that even the shade of a temporary awning did not offer relief from the heat. Flavored ice cones and barbecue were being sold behind the bleachers. Money raised was to be donated to local charities in the name of Johnny Mata.

His daughter, wearing a tee shirt, spun around to show the silk screen to a stranger; “In honor of my father and hero, Johnny Mata.” Mata’s face, encircled by the text, shined through the cotton fiber.

As a mechanic, Johnny Mata had acquired expertise in all of the heavy vehicles used by the United States Army. When his commander-in-chief, the President of the United States, issued orders that the 507th Mechanized Company relocate to Kuwait, Johnny saw his role as that of a soldier doing his job. He and Nancili did not talk about the politics of going after Saddam Hussein. There was no point to such a discussion. Orders were orders. He had to go, and so did all of the other soldiers in his outfit.

No one at Fort Bliss knew about faked documents trying to prove Saddam had attempted to buy uranium from Nigeria. They didn’t know there were no provable connections between Saddam and al Qaeda terrorists. Their commander-in-chief, they were certain, took his duties as solemnly and seriously as everyone at Fort Bliss. If the president said there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, every soldier accepted the statement for fact. As hazy as the politics were, they were irrelevant to everyone shipping out from Biggs Army Air Field at Fort Bliss. A soldier does not debate the politics of a presidential decision. He follows orders.

“We don’t think about no politics in our family,” said Domingo Mata. Johnny Mata’s father is a man whose impressive size reflects an appetite for all of life’s pleasures. He had been hovering nearby, listening to his daughter-in-law answer questions.

“Politics is just when someone tells you they’ll do something so you’ll help them get something they want, and then when they get in there, they forget all about the people who got them in. In our family, we just do what we need to do, what we think is right. That’s all Johnny did. When he went up there, (Iraq,) he just wanted to help all those little children who were hungry, and hurtin’, you know?”

Logic told Nancili and all of the Matas that they did not need to fret too much over Johnny’s deployment. Even though Johnny was in Kuwait, the president sounded like he was trying to give the situation time to work itself out, peacefully. Surely, he did not want a war. Besides, Johnny was not with a combat unit. He fixed vehicles. His work was done at the rear. By the time the 507th moved through, the Matas reasoned, the Marines, infantry, and air support were certain to have secured the area and chased off, or killed the enemy. Odds of Johnny Mata encountering harm or great danger were considered minimal.

But Nancili Mata knew her husband, and it made her worry while her family expressed confidence.

“I did not think he was safe. I said, ‘Johnny, I want you to tell me, if a vehicle is broken down, how are you gonna fix it? Are you gonna go out there and fix it, or are they gonna bring it to you?’ And he said, ‘Well, sometimes they bring them and sometimes you have to go out there and fix them.’ And I said, ‘Okay, if they break down you send somebody else to fix it,’ knowing well that he wouldn’t do that. He would go out there.”

She believed in her president, though. This was the United States of America. George W. Bush had grown up just down the highway to the east. He had to have the basic, common sense that comes from learning to live on such a harsh, unforgiving landscape. Nancili Mata shared that with the most powerful man in the world.

Her family traced its lineage way back to the days when the state had been called Tejas, and it was ruled by Mexico. She knew the kind of sensibilities a place like this could provide a person, the cold, clear judgment it taught by the desert heat. There was no reason not to trust a president who came from here. Surely, her president would be guided by restraint and honor, a wisdom swept clean by the dry, desert winds of his youth.

Instead, Nancili Mata has new troubles.

“I worry, sometimes, that he, (God,) will come for me, too. And I’m ready. I want to go be with Johnny. But we…I’ve got these two kids to raise. I have to be here for them. I want to see them grow up. And then I’ll go see Johnny.”

Eric, who was 16, had already made plans. After high school graduation, he was going to enlist.

“My intentions are to go into the Army,” he said. “My father’s death has strengthened that decision.”

Stephani Mata walked up and touched her mother’s arm, needing nothing more than closeness. Just then, Nancili tilted her head back, and lifted her eyes toward heaven, as if she were speaking directly to her husband.

Her gaze burned through the makeshift awning protecting her from the white, hot Texas sky.

“Wait for me,” she said.

And then her voice softened.

“I’ll be there. But not yet.”