The ties that bind

Soldiers' bonds become those of their families after one is lost at war.

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Marines carry the remains of Claudio Patiño IV across the tarmac at Los Alamitos Joint Forces Training Base.

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Claudio Patiño walks along a road in Afghanistan with several local children. Patiño died in combat earlier this year.

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Claudio Patiño IV

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Nat and Wedni Small dance the traditional first dance at their delayed wedding reception that took place in Lowden earlier this month.

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Claudio Patiño IV as a child.

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After changing out of his Marine dress blues after his wedding reception, Nat Small walks out of the Lowden Community Center carrying a pair of work boots and wearing a keepsake to remind him of a fellow Marine who died in Afghanistan.

WALLA WALLA - On the outskirts of town, in a home near a wheat field where her family has farmed for generations, Kathleen Small will set out her best dinnerware to celebrate what promises to be both a normal and traditional Thanksgiving.

A thousand miles away in Yorba Linda, Calif., Evelyn Patio will also set out the best, but instead of china, the matriarch of the family will use her treasured Talavera plates from Puebla, Mexico, to serve a turkey dinner with all the trimmings, along with the Mexican favorite of flan.

Except for the custard, the Patios will also have a traditional Thanksgiving, but Small knows all too well that this Thanksgiving will be far from normal for them.

"I think that is why it has been so hard on me, why it feels almost like losing my own son. And I know it is devastating. And I know it won't be normal. And it will take years for them to feel normal," Small said.

The friendship between the two women is one built on the foundation of another friendship, between two young men.

On the Patio side was a young Marine by the name of Claudio Patio IV. And along with being a member of the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twenty-nine Palms, Calif., he was also a good friend to fellow Marine and platoon member Nat Small, Kathleen's son.

There were no last dying words, no drawn out agony, not even a chance to say good-bye, 21-year-old Nat said of June 22, the day his buddy Claudio was gunned down by enemy fire.

According to his obituary, the team of Marines was "conducting dismounted combat operations against enemy forces" in the Helmand province of Afghanistan.

"It all happened so fast," Nat said, referring to how quickly Claudio died.

But what followed was not quick, but instead a drawn-out hell as Nat and others tried to save a fellow team member while under fire.

"It took almost an hour to get a bird (helicopter). And we were just waiting around, trying to get him back. And I had hope that we were going to be able to get him back. But we were working on him for a long time, and trying to fight the guys off that were coming after us.

"And it was a very long hour," Nat recalled.

After the helicopter arrived, Nat helped load the body of his friend, but not before keeping one item. Then Nat went back to fight in a battle where another Marine would be shot, and Nat had already been wounded by a rocket propelled grenade.

Nat's injuries would eventually lead to rehab at the naval medical center in San Diego, Calif., which is where his mother and wife, Wendi, found him after a short search.

Kathleen remembers when she and Wendi arrived at the hospital. They couldn't get anyone to tell them Nat's room number. So mother and daughter-in-law started searching until they found him.

"He was sitting in a hospital chair. She (Wendi) just kind of jumped into his lap," Kathleen said, noting the young couple wasn't doing much talking at that point. "It was pretty sweet. She jumped on his lap and I walked out of the room."

Over the days, Wendi would come to realize that Nat was going to be OK, though the injuries he suffered affected hearing in one ear.

"I will go to whisper something in his ear, and he will be like, ‘Other ear. Other ear,'" Wendi said, noting how they are adjusting to the loss. But Nat brushes it off as a minor inconvenience.

"I don't think there is anything really terrible at all. A lot of my buddies don't have legs anymore. And a few of them are dead. So this is nothing to me," he said.

But not all wounds are physical.

"I think it has been hard, really hard for him. He doesn't really talk about it, especially with me. But I think he has done a lot to help himself, especially by spending time with the Patios. That was helpful for him," she said.

As Nat recovered in the hospital and came to terms with the loss of his friend, another friendship was being formed.

It is a tradition entrenched within the Marines, Kathleen explained, as she described how when local parents of Marines learned her son was injured, they came forward from all over to meet and console her.

"It's a family. And they embrace each other's family. We experienced it before, but not to this depth," she said.

This dedication to the parents of the injured or dead would again be played out at the welcoming ceremony for the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment. It was Oct. 25 when Kathleen watched as each arriving member of Claudio's platoon greeted the mother of the dead Marine.

"Every one of the young men was carrying a rose for her. And they went straight to Evelyn and Claudio (Evelyn's husband) and hugged and kissed her. And they (the returning Marines) had family there that they hadn't seen for months. But they went straight to them first and loved on them first. That was a sight to see."

Evelyn Patio also remembered that day with a tear in her eye as she recalled her feelings at seeing each line of Marines coming home.

"I buried my son. But I kept thinking he was coming with the last line. I knew he was buried but..." Evelyn said, then she paused.

"I wanted to stay with them to support them. I can't say I don't want to be here because my son is not here," she said. Then she wiped away her tears.

In the days that followed her son's rehab, Kathleen would visit Evelyn, trying to comfort, console and share.

"We lost our oldest daughter when she was an infant. I understand what it is like to lose a child, and I think that is why Evelyn and I talked so well together," she said.

Nat Small would make the two-hour drive from San Diego to visit the mother of his friend.

"It was rough. I was really nervous. I wanted to see them, but I didn't want to. I sat in the car for a long time," Small said.

Inside the Yorba Linda home, Evelyn Patio was also anxious. "Very nervous, probably because I wanted to ask him so many questions," she said.

Eventually, Nat and Wendi would return home to Walla Walla. And as the months passed, they planned the wedding reception they never had.

Married Dec. 31, 2009, life was too hectic and the time with Nat too short to worry about holding a reception then.

"I was so glad we waited because it (the wedding) was so stressful," Wendi said.

So to keep with the original plan, on Nov. 13, 2010, Mr. and Mrs. Nat Small found themselves at the Lowden Community Center celebrating their marriage 10 months after the fact.

A punch fountain was set up on a back table and filled with the Small family's famous banana punch. Across from it, two banquet tables were set end to end and covered with a dozen homemade salads and dozens of boxes of pizza for the guests, who sat at tables that lined each side of the great hall. And between those tables was the dance floor.

After everyone had eaten, people still weren't dancing. Then the DJ put in some lively music, and a young couple who obviously knew how to move together, in unison and in beat, began swing dancing. All the while, the bridesmaids and a few other young women wiggled their hips to the music, signaling that they were waiting for anyone man enough to ask them to dance. Then a slow song came up next, and a group of fathers, dates and good friends dutifully grabbed a partner and started doing a safe slow twirl, as the rest of the seated guests watched. And seated near the front, right in the mix of close family, was a couple who had traveled more than 1,000 miles to be there, Claudio and Evelyn Patio.

"I came to represent my son to the Small family … If my son lived, I know he would be here with the Smalls. Cien por ciento (100 percent)," Evelyn said. Then she added, "To stay together."

So when the invitation arrived, there was no question about it. They would go and be where there son could not.

For Marlon Chinchilla, an older brother of the lost Marine, the invitation couldn't have come at a better time.

"I kept saying maybe you guys should get away for a week or two. And they didn't want to. And I told them you need to. And when they got the invitation they said, ‘Yes, we are going.' And I thought it couldn't have been at a more perfect time," Chinchilla said.

So earlier this month, the Patios embarked on the journey, one that Evelyn admitted made her sad at first. Once here, they took part in a reception for a wedding they did not attend.

And they shared food with family they really didn't know. But for those who understood the deeper story, they knew that the Patios and Smalls are family. And the proof of their bloodline was evidenced by a small piece of cloth wrapped around a wrist.

It was time for the first dance. And as with most first dances between newlyweds, hundreds of guests watched as the couple swayed in circles under a chandelier by themselves to "Danny's Song" by Loggins and Messina.

"Nat was really nervous about dancing because he doesn't know how to dance at all," Wendi described. "And he started joking, ‘This is the longest song ever.'"

As Nat reached his arms around his wife, the sleeve of his dress blues pulled up a bit to reveal on his right wrist something that wasn't there the day they were married.

A small piece of cloth was wrapped around his wrist. It contrasted with the majestic regalia of his Marine uniform.

Earlier that evening, as the couple was seated together, the question was asked about the unusual cloth around the Marine's wrist. The couple went silent.

"It was Claudio's headband," Nat said, and as he spoke Wendi almost started to cry. "I took it off him before we loaded him up."

Earlier, Nat had said, "I think about it. I wish it could have happened different. You know, missing a good buddy. Now I am just doing the best to be there for his family."

And when Nat, as well as the others, was asked what he would be most thankful for on this Thanksgiving Day, he answered, "All my buddies that did come home."

As expected, Wendi answered, "Having him home."

And Kathleen Small answered, "It is going to be a long haul for them, and I'm thankful that I can be there."

As for Evelyn Patio, before she would answer the question, the mother had the chance to describe her son.

"My son, he was a good, good son. Very close to me. With the father too, but always very close to me. One night, he was driving with me, and the moon so beautiful. I said, when you stay over there, remember the moon connects us."

She went on to describe how her son would often call, and if it was at night, and if the moon was shining in Afghanistan, he would say, "Mom. I see the moon, I remember you."

So on this Thanksgiving day, Evelyn said she would remember her son by setting out a Talavera plate at an empty seat where Claudio would have sat to enjoy a traditional Thanksgiving meal and flan.

"I am thankful for everything. The house, the food, the family," Evelyn began to answer, as people often do when asked what they are most thankful for on this day. But then she paused for a second and continued.

"For everybody who loved my son. Thank you God for giving me the opportunity to have my son."

Alfred Diaz can be reached at alfreddiaz@wwub.com or 526-8325.

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