In Marine’s Death, Clues To A Son’s Life
Mother Finds Answers In Effort to Understand Sergeant Killed in Iraq
By Dan Morse, Washington Post Staff Writer
Gilda Carbonaro pulled her car to a stop inside Arlington National Cemetery, stepping out to visit the freshly dug grave of her only child, Alex.
With her was a broad-shouldered Marine, limping from a leg shattered in battle, who towered a foot over Gilda. The Marine hadn’t known Alex well but held precious clues about the person he had become.
Gilda had many questions. She and her husband had raised Alex in a world different from the military’s — the protected streets of Bethesda. Alex graduated from a Quaker high school, then stunned them by enlisting in the Marine Corps.
Gilda trusted he would serve out his initial five-year commitment, come home and go to college. Instead, he reenlisted, earning a spot in one of the Marines’ elite reconnaissance units, called Recon, which operate deep inside enemy territory. That took Alex on two tours in Iraq, a war Gilda had spent two years trying to end.
On May 1, a roadside bomb tore through Alex’s Humvee, setting him and two of his men on fire. He died 10 days later in a military hospital in Germany in the arms of his mom, his dad, his wife of not quite 12 months and his mother-in-law.
Alex remains the only service member listed from Bethesda killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. He was 28.
His grave in sight, Gilda — a 56-year-old school teacher — wrestled with unyielding grief, and with a mother’s need to understand her son. The Marine walking with Gilda was a sergeant, like Alex. They placed flowers on Alex’s grave, doing the same at the nearby grave of one of Alex’s men. They walked to a big tree and sat down.
"Have you read the Recon Creed?" the Marine asked. "We live by that."
The Corps Over College
Alex was a tough read, even as a kid. Private and headstrong, he tended to reveal big decisions only after he had made them.
The world around him couldn’t have been more focused on college. In 2000, according to U.S. Census data, Bethesda held more degrees per capita than any place in the country with more than 50,000 people.
Gilda held a master’s in linguistics from Georgetown University. She taught Spanish at two of the area’s top prep schools, first Holton-Arms, then St. Albans. Alex’s father, Fulvio, a native of Italy with a master’s in computer science, consulted at financial institutions in developing nations around the world.
The couple tried not to smother their only child. When he was 12, Gilda walked him through their neighborhood, helping line up friends who needed lawns mowed. Alex spent $300 of his earnings on a watch for his dad.
Alex spelled poorly, shaking his confidence as he advanced in school. Seeking smaller classes, his parents enrolled him at Sandy Spring Friends School, an eclectic prep school where students call teachers by their first names and are exposed to the Quaker tenets of peace and pacifism.
Alex applied himself to only what interested him — Russian history, Brazilian history, creative writing — and posted erratic grades reflecting that. He came to see college as a place others headed simply to get a degree. Without studying, he posted an SAT score high enough to give him a good shot at Georgetown.
Gilda handed him an application. "You’ll have the most fun you’ve had in your life," she said.
Alex began to fill it out but halted at a section he viewed as phony. "This is when the person applying to college writes these essays saying what wonderful people they are," Gilda recalled him saying. "I’m not doing that."
Alex stood a wafer-thin 5 feet 7 inches tall, making it that much more shocking when he told his parents that he had enlisted after high school. The three drove to the Marine recruiting office in Rockville. "You can live a year of your life wasting time," the recruiter told them. "Or you can live it, planning every minute of it, and living it well."
To Gilda, it sounded like a standard spiel for parents. But part of it reflected her beliefs. "The unexamined life is not worth living," she thought.
Alex’s decision stunned friends. He was the kid playing Dungeons & Dragons, the garage-band guitarist, the high-schooler squeezed into a booth at TGI Friday’s, sucking down cigarettes and endless cups of coffee. He told them that he wanted to be financially free, to travel, to become stronger. "You know what," he told buddy Jon Codell, cutting off his concerns, "I think it’s honorable."
Alex shipped off for boot camp at Parris Island in summer 1998. His parents soaked up his letters.
"My first shot was in the 2-ring center and to the left," Alex wrote. He had to nail seven bull’s-eyes from 500 yards in his final seven shots. He did, "and so now I can move on in boot camp."
After graduating, Alex was sent to Japan to maintain electronic components of Marine aircraft.
"Hi Bug," Gilda e-mailed, addressing him by a nickname she had coined when he was a baby. "Well, so it’s Lance Corporal now. Fantastic! What is the rank that follows it? Some sort of sergeant?"
"What follows lance Corporal is Corporal," Alex responded. "A lance Corporal is just a Corporal without a horse. I learned that yesterday. From the sound of it, most LCPL’s don’t get their horse for about three years in this particular occupation."
The Marines sent him to an Air National Guard base in New York. Then terrorists struck the Pentagon and World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. The world seemed to be going to hell, Alex told a high school friend, and he wanted to get in the middle of it. Apart from that, he had never become the Marine he envisioned. He reenlisted, setting his sights on Recon. Fewer than one in five make it.
Gilda suggested having the Marines send him to college so he would come out an officer: "Doesn’t it make sense to seek a commission?"
"So I can be stacking papers and signing things while my men are in the field?" Alex responded. "I don’t think so."
‘I Struggle With Myself’
Gilda and Fulvio fully supported removing Afghanistan’s Taliban government. Given time, Fulvio thought, the United States would lead poorer nations toward democracy. "I am now convinced I was wrong," he e-mailed friends a month after the Iraq invasion.
A year later, Gilda and Fulvio thought the United States shouldn’t pull out. Then, for Gilda, came a growing sense that staying was doing more harm. In spring 2004, she joined Military Families Speak Out.
She placed a sign in her living room window: "Bring The Troops Home Now." She kept postcards in her purse calling for withdrawal and slipped them onto windshields in downtown Bethesda. She went to rallies, visited members of Congress. She sent Alex articles on such topics as the challenges of reconstructing Iraq.
"I struggle with myself in deciding whether or not to send you these things," she wrote. "Obviously I want you to have total conviction in what you are doing. To me, this conviction translates to your safety. But another part of me is convinced the more knowledge you have, the better off, the safer you’ll be.”
Alex kept training for Recon. At home one weekend, he and Bethesda friend Andy Huff jogged to Bradley Hills Elementary School. Alex reached for a chin-up bar, knocking out 20. He took a quick break and did nearly 20 more. "Whoa," Huff remembers telling him. "That’s pretty crazy."
In September 2004, as part of a Recon battalion with the motto "Swift, Silent, Deadly," Alex shipped off to Iraq.
‘Enough of the Politics’
Two months later, Gilda heard from Alex’s fiancee. A bomb had blown up under Alex’s Humvee, sending shrapnel into his foot and laying him up in a field hospital outside Fallujah.
"Mom, Mom, Mom," he said over the phone. "I don’t want you to make a big deal out of this. I don’t want anybody out there thinking, ‘Oh, poor Alex, poor Alex.’ "
He asked his parents to visit a wounded buddy at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. While there, they met other Marines, too, including one blinded by a gunshot who asked what Alex did.
"He’s Recon," Gilda said.
"Recon. They’re crazy, ma’am."
She asked what he meant.
"They have no fear," he said.
Gilda and Fulvio also met Frank Delgado, the tall Recon Marine who two years later would go with Gilda to Alex’s grave. Three metal rings surrounded Delgado’s lower left leg, and rods descended into his bones. He told the Carbonaros that he had just seen Alex. He was okay, and Delgado told them how lucky he was: Alex soon would be fighting alongside his buddies, not laid up worrying about them.
Gilda began visiting the hospital weekly. She also learned of Marines in boot camp who didn’t get mail. She wrote them, trying to lift their spirits.
She sent Alex cookies, cakes, books, articles. She tried to engage him in campaign discussions.
"Enough of the politics," Alex e-mailed her from Iraq.
A month later, a red bouquet arrived for Gilda. "Happy Birthday," the card read. "Just know that I am doing OK. I love you. Alex."
Joining in Protests
May 28, 2005, was his wedding day.
At 11:30 a.m. he walked downstairs in his dress-blue uniform, a row of five medals, including a purple heart, hanging on his chest.
"Wait a minute," Gilda said. "The wedding is at 3, Alex."
He wanted to join six other Marines at the church to practice a ceremony in which he and his bride would walk under an arch of swords.
The newlyweds settled outside a Recon base in North Carolina. Selected as team leader, Alex was in charge of five younger Marines. It was down there, between his deployments, that Alex searched the Internet for his mom’s name.
At the rallies, Gilda hadn’t mentioned Alex’s name. She had rarely mentioned hers. Still, as Alex could see, she had certainly been active. At a rally in Washington, a speaker saw Gilda, calling out her name. She spoke in Philadelphia. And just before Alex had left on his first tour, she spoke by phone to a reporter with Radio Free Europe.
"I can’t let my son see how upset I am," she said in an online version of the story. "How do you turn around and tell your son: ‘Your president, he made a mistake. You need to abandon your men.’ You don’t tell your child that."
Alex didn’t like it. "Keep a low profile," he told Gilda.
She did. As Gilda wrote senators and friends, she stacked copies in a box, hoping one day to give them to Alex.
"How did the pistol shooting go? . . . What’s the mood like in the country at least as far as Marines are concerned about the way things are going in Iraq?" she e-mailed from Italy.
"Political-wise marines are marines," he wrote back, "and will always just talk about the last time they went over there or the next time they may have to go."
Part of the Family
By April this year, Alex was back in Iraq for his second tour. "Hi guys," he wrote to his parents April 28. "I’m doing fine. I really haven’t been in [camp] a lot. Maybe five days since I’ve been here. . . . I will get a hold of you soon. Alex."
Four days later, Gilda heard a knock on her classroom door. The chaplain asked her to her office. "It’s Alex, isn’t it?" Gilda asked.
Within days, she stood outside Alex’s hospital room in Germany, being asked to put on a gown, rubber gloves, a mask and a hair cap. She walked in. Alex was hooked to a respirator. Bandages covered all but small patches of his darkened face.
"Don’t worry," Gilda told him. "Everyone says you’ve been such a fighter, how tough you are. You have the best doctors, baby. You’re going to be just fine."
Alex couldn’t respond. "You’ve had more Masses than the pope," his wife told him, forcing a smile in her voice. Alex’s mom broke for the door, screaming as she reached the hall.
Two weeks later, Alex’s parents, his widow and his in-laws sat in a front row at Washington National Cathedral. More than 700 mourners sat behind them — relatives, friends, Marines, St. Albans boys in their coats and ties.
Jeff Corwon, a Marine, walked to the lectern, his lower lip quivering, his back ramrod straight. He spoke of Alex’s dedication. He turned to Alex’s parents.
"Mr. and Mrs. Carbonaro, in your eyes Alex may have been an only child," he said, his voice halting. "But through your eyes, you may not have seen how good of a brother he was of mine."
It was the kind of language they had heard for weeks — over the phone from North Carolina, in Germany, in Washington setting up the funeral: You are part of our family.
That evening, friends and relatives gathered at the Carbonaros’. Carloads of Marines pulled up, parking near Gilda’s Bring The Troops Home sign. Inside, they stood in clumps, telling stories about Alex and smiling. Gilda kept approaching. They offered to do anything for her — now, 20 years from now. "We’re going to get together again, right?" she asked.
Absolutely, they said.
Online, she found tributes: "Many times, I went to Alex for ideas and advice on how to accomplish a task," wrote his platoon commander, Lt. Tommy Waller, "never walking away without a better plan than the one I had started with."
Gilda also found the Recon Creed, which offers its own tenets for life: Sacrifice comfort. Complete the mission. "A Recon Marine can speak without saying a word," it closes, "and achieve what others can only imagine."
Alex’s widow, who is also named Gilda, told his parents of her final phone conversation with Alex in late April. She told him that people were praying for him. He told her to thank them. "Tell them to pray for my team, too," he said, adding that if something happened to them, it would be as bad or worse than if it happened to him. Alex also asked his wife to round up information on the veteran’s college scholarships they had discussed. He planned to leave the Corps next year.
Alex’s mom read the book "One Bullet Away," written by a Recon officer. In battle, he wrote, Recon operated in such small units that its team leaders were "the battalion’s backbone."
Closer to home, two Marine veterans of the Iraq war check on Gilda and Fulvio. Sometimes they bring Italian wine, staying for dinner. "There’s a bit of Alex in all of us," Delgado, who just retired from the Corps, told them last month.
Alex’s full unit is due home this month, with members planning to visit Arlington. Gilda has invited many of them over. She and Fulvio want to meet Marines such as David Drexler, the last known person to hear Alex speak.
After the blast, he wrestled Alex to the ground, damping out flames with his gloved hands. He wrapped Alex in a gel-lined blanket, laid him on his back and propped Alex’s head on his leg as they waited for the helicopter. Alex cursed roadside bombs, joking that they had gotten him again. He asked for water.
"Where’s Elmo?" Alex asked. "Where’s Moss?"
"Doc’s working on them now," Drexler said.
"How’s Palmer? How’s Fulks?"
"Everybody’s fine," Drexler said.
Twenty minutes passed. Alex kept asking about his team. Finally, he said his arms felt like they were burning, and his face hurt.
"Okay," Drexler said, knowing he needed morphine. "I’m going to call for Doc."