Brussels Airport bombing, one year later: Widowed dad fills the empty space in a wounded family
SAN ANTONIO — Air Force cadet Kato Martinez was wearing a watch at 5:35 p.m., but he still asked her for the time.
“You can check yourself,” Gail Minglana replied, unimpressed. Kato walked back to a group of friends with wounded pride. They suggested he go back to the college student and try again.
“My friends were trying to figure out if you were 17 or 19,” he said, struggling to gauge whether she was old enough to go on a date with a 26-year-old. Encouraged by his bravery and smile, she shared with him her first laugh of many over the next two decades.
Their nearly 19-year marriage endured stress and uncertainty that would have broken most families. But Gail and Air Force Lt. Col. Melchizedek “Kato” Martinez, a career special operations communications officer, raised four children through several combat deployments and moved across the world as if they never left the orbit of San Antonio, where they met and, in a tragically incomplete way, returned last year.
Gail, 41, was killed in a terrorist attack at the Brussels Airport on March 22, 2016, as the family embarked on a trip to Disney World, or as Kato described it, their second home.
The trip was a threefold celebration: Kato’s return from a grueling Afghanistan deployment, spring break from school and a visit to the University of Central Florida, where their oldest daughter, Kianni, would go that fall on an ROTC scholarship.
Terrorists transformed the airport into a battlefield where 15 others were killed and 81 were wounded, including Kato and his four children, who suffered a dizzying array of third-degree burns, fractures and concussions. Kianni, 18, nearly lost her leg in the blast.
Kato received a Purple Heart for his wounds in the terrorist attack by the Islamic State group, which puts Gail in the rarest of categories as a military spouse killed by enemy action.
The blast ended one version of the Martinez family, taking its matriarch and spiriting a father and his four children toward an uncertain future.
It also forged a new path and identity for Kato. For his entire career, he was known as the operator who took the toughest assignments. Now he’s adjusting to a new role: widowed dad.
Gail’s big presence
Every kid in a military family dreads the question: Where are you from? The Martinez kids — Kianni, brother Kimo, 13, and sisters Noelani 9, and Kailani, 7 — collectively cannot answer that after losing count of their moves. But they know where refuge can be found.
“Home is wherever Mom is,” Kato said, paraphrasing his kids' description of Gail’s role in the family, during an interview at his San Antonio home.
“She was a big presence,” he said, recounting her unending work in the household and as a force of patience and care for other military spouses at every posting they held together.
The first assignment was a fledging air base in Italy, followed by postings in Arizona, Virginia and Florida. Kato deployed to Iraq in 2006 and was responsible for bolstering communications between forces on the ground and commanders at Special Operations Command, he said.
The conditions and equipment were so austere that he traded gear, such as tactical flashlights and knives, to other units for cables and wiring. After their work was complete, special operations troops could better coordinate with airpower assets.
“We just got the job done,” Kato said.
He was summoned to Afghanistan while still in Iraq to help improve field communication there. The Pentagon thirsted for instant updates. Kato’s work helped provide helmet-camera footage from raids and hostage rescues to war planners an ocean away.
That war was a return of sorts. His mother was a United Nations peacekeeper for 30 years and took him on a mission to Beirut in the 1980s, when he was 13. The devastation there rocked him.
“I knew this would be my future even then,” Kato said.
He felt the ripples of that dread while inching through a minefield in Afghanistan. The known mines were marked with flags. Some of them were so close that the flags clipped the truck as they drove by, he said.
It was these kind of tense moments — mortar attacks and waiting for the ground to erupt from an improvised explosive device — that he kept from Gail on his return. For a time, he slept on the floor when he could sleep at all, and was startled by sudden noises.
“My body was saturated by adrenaline,” Kato said. “But she never asked about it. She knew. She kept the discussion about the kids.”
As the commander’s wife, she took on the responsibility of coordinator and fundraiser for events in the family group, he said. That was a typical expectation of an officer’s spouse. But her most vital work, he said, was confidante and fixer for other wives challenged by the inherent instability of life in uniform.
“She wasn’t Lt. Col. Martinez’s wife” to the other spouses, Kato said. “She was Gail. She was a friend and sister to them.”
When Kato was assigned to Guam with Special Operations Command Pacific from 2012 to 2014, the family moved yet again. Kianni chose to play softball so she could spend precious few moments with Kato. He was the coach but was often caught up with work. Gail stepped in and helped Kianni tighten her swing.
The Guam High School Panthers were a Cinderella team, Kianni said, rocketing from last seed to second best, thanks in part to her improved hitting.
It was nearly time to leave again, this time for a NATO assignment at Joint Force Command in the Netherlands and another deployment to Afghanistan for Kato. But the move did not faze Gail. She was excited to see Europe again and take in the sights, Kato said. She studied architecture at the University of Texas at San Antonio, he said, where they met.
Kianni was frustrated with moving in the middle of high school, but her mother reassured her. The new high school had an Air Force ROTC program -- an improvement over the Navy-only program in Guam.
“When you go somewhere new, it’s a fresh start,” she told Kianni.
A family under attack
At more than 4,500 miles, it is a long flight between Brussels and Orlando, Fla. The Martinez family made it just a few steps into the Brussels Airport when the first bomb exploded.
Kato was returning from the restroom, he said, while his family huddled near a counter to check their luggage.
“The bomber waited for me to come back to the line. I can only imagine he was thinking, ‘One more victim,’ ” he said.
Kato was launched forward by the blast as nails and other metal shrapnel mushroomed from the bomb. The blast wave ignited the air, consuming the area with a fireball that swept over the Martinez family. Kato, dazed but conscious, scanned the floor looking for signs of life through the clearing smoke. He saw a girl about 4 years old on top of her mother yelling for her to wake up. Kato knew that woman was dead.
“I can’t get past that. I see it all the time,” he said, recalling the event.
Kianni was the first family member he found. Other victims absorbed the brunt of the blast, and Kianni was at the nucleus of severed limbs and bodies fanned out around her. The blast perforated an eardrum, and she didn’t know she was screaming until she felt her throat burn. Kato crawled toward Kianni to assess her injuries. The screaming meant she was alive.
Kato said he saw Gail next, and he knew.
She was on the ground 10 feet away. Her leg was severed below the knee. Kato rushed to apply a tourniquet with his scarf and called out in French for help. No one came for a while, Kato said, so he held Gail’s hand. He cannot remember what he whispered over her, he said.
A paramedic came to help him, he said, but he asked for Kianni and Gail to be carried out first.
Kianni said she was too far away to touch her mother when she was brought out, but she was close enough to catch a glimpse of a smile on Gail’s face.
“She wasn’t in pain anymore. She was at peace. And she was gone,” Kianni said.
Kato came out next and was laid on the ground next to Kianni. Medics covered her face with an oxygen mask, and upon seeing her father slip away, she frantically tugged the mask to hand it to him.
“I closed my eyes and waited to go to sleep. Why fight it? I was holding my daughter’s hand. I knew I was slipping away,” he said.
“I love you. Take care of the kids,” Kato said to her before closing his eyes again, Kianni recalled. “Don’t you leave me too,” she shouted in his face. He awoke in a spasm.
Kato and Kianni were loaded into separate ambulances, neither knowing whether the other children were alive.
Long road to recovery
Kato underwent initial surgery on shrapnel wounds, a shattered heel and second- and third-degree burns. He awoke the next day, grabbed his cell phone and dialed every number he could, including the operations center at the NATO Joint Force Headquarters. He shouted a nine-line medevac request, a standard military procedure for detailing the grid location and severity of injuries on a battlefield.
The operations center answered with a deployment. His colleagues and their spouses arrived at the hospital and posted round-the-clock guards outside each of their hospital rooms. There was a communications blackout after hackers accessed Gail’s Facebook page, and there was concern that Islamic State-aligned lone wolves would target them after media reports highlighted the Martinez family, Kato said.
He would learn the next day that his kids survived, but with serious injuries. Shrapnel shredded a blood vessel in Kianni’s foot. Kimo received third-degree burns on 40 percent of his body. The two youngest, Kailani and Noelani, also sustained third-degree burns.
After two weeks of recovery and surgeries, the family flew to Galveston, Texas, in a lumbering C-17 Globemaster with a dedicated medical support team, bound for months of burn treatment and skin grafts at Shriners Hospital for Children.
Kato cried when he saw the water in Galveston, he said, where Gail grew up. She still had family in the area who helped care for the kids. The two youngest girls stayed with family friends in San Antonio and entered school, joined later by Kato, Kimo and Kianni after he was reassigned to the 59th Medical Wing at Lackland Air Force Base as a patient.
The San Antonio community wrapped itself around the family, Kato said. Building Homes for Heroes, a nonprofit that builds and modifies mortgage-free homes for wounded troops, adapted a home with powerful air conditioning and steam showers to lessen the pain from the children’s burns. Designers took cues from Kato on what kind of house Gail would create, he said. At the top of the list: no dark cabinets. Gail preferred bright spaces, he said, and though she would never set foot in the house, it was hers.
A year later
Kato will join 24th Air Force at the end of March, a cyber command desk job far from the field of his past assignments.
“It’s a massive paradigm shift. I’ve been an operator my whole career,” he said. The tempo is relentless in a different way, and will surely increase as the services ramp up cyberwarfare capabilities against sophisticated Russian and Chinese threats.
Until he reports there, speaking engagements and four kids have kept Kato busy. There is a new lesson nearly every day about what Gail did for the family, he said. Doctor’s appointments and music lessons stretch far into the calendar, and he’s fighting to keep up.
It was particularly difficult last fall, on the first day of the first semester without Gail. The parents dropping kids off were mostly mothers, proudly posing for photos primed for Facebook with homemade signs announcing the big day. It hadn’t occurred to Kato to have something ready, he said.
In the rare moments of quiet, Kato said he sometimes thinks about how an enemy combatant made it nearly an arm’s reach to his family despite his extensive training and experience.
“The most fundamental thing for any father is to protect his wife and children. I failed to do that,” he said. But it’s not the only lesson he seeks to pull from the wreckage.
“It’s easy for us to die,” he said. “It’s living that is hard. It’s the family who has to pick up the pieces. But you got to go on.”
On this day, Kato sat alone in the living room, deep into the cushions of a well-worn green leather sofa -- the first piece of furniture Kato and Gail shared as a married couple. The kids would be home from school soon, brimming with candy and Valentine’s Day cards from classmates. But the house was at a temporary standstill.
He looked at flowers on the coffee table -- he buys a bouquet with bright colors as a reminder of Gail once a week, every week, and places it there. The roses and carnations were beginning to wilt, fading from their once vibrant orange and pink hues. It was time to change the flowers, he said, but not because of the holiday.
He chose not to recognize it.
Noelani and Kailani burst through the door with smiles and scars bared. They hugged and kissed Kato on their way in, while gushing about Valentine’s Day activities at school. The wind shifted outside, rattling a chime on the patio.
“Who is that?” Kato asked them.
They don’t hesitate to answer. It’s her house, after all.
“Mommy!” they happily yelled, and then with military discipline, sat at the table to begin a new round of homework.