‘You never move on’ — Three years later, widow reflects on loss of Navy husband who died aboard USS Fitzgerald
By MATTHEW WILSON | The (McAllen, Texas) Monitor | Published: May 25, 2020
EDINBURG, Texas (Tribune News Service) — There’s a room in Dora Hernandez’s home here that she calls her travel room.
It’s easy to see why she calls it that. The room is filled with mementos from across the globe, pins from Hard Rock Cafes, books from different countries, maps, figurines, keychains.
Dora and her husband, Noe, collected most of the stuff while he was in the Navy.
“Our goal was always, ‘Let’s get five souvenirs, because if something breaks, we’re not going back,’” Dora recalled.
There’s a big book in the room, one of those books with pictures and facts from around the world you give kids to make them more cultured. Noe got it when he was 14. He and Dora made a sort of challenge out of it, tucking postcards from each place they visited that was in the book, trying to match the picture on the postcard with the pictures on the pages.
Noe never got to finish filling up the book. On June 17, 2017, Petty Officer 2nd Class Noe Hernandez, then a 26-year-old gunner’s mate, died when the U.S.S. Fitzgerald was struck by a container ship off the coast of Japan, flooding a living space and killing Noe and six other sailors aboard the Navy vessel.
Monday, like every other Memorial Day since Noe’s death, Dora will start getting messages from family and friends, especially those in the military community.
“Are you OK,” they’ll say.
Or, “We’re thinking of you guys.”
“We had a barbecue and we talked about Noe.”
“That makes me so happy,” Dora said, “because that’s what Memorial Day is about — sitting there and remembering those that you know and those that you don’t know,”
Noe and Dora were high school sweethearts growing up in Weslaco. They met when they were 17 on a school criminal justice club field trip to the jail in McAllen. One of the inmates gave Dora a creepy scare. She was frightened and started walking backward, grabbing onto the first person she bumped into. It was Noe.
“After that, we just hit it off, and we kind of became one,” Dora said. “We were just always together.”
Noe always had wanted to join the military. He’d played with toy soldiers as a kid, shuffling through which branch he wanted to join as he grew up. It was a natural career for someone like Noe, whose eyes would light up every time he saw a road he hadn’t traveled yet.
After high school, Noe joined the Navy. He and Dora were passionate about traveling, taking advantage of being stationed in Italy and later Japan to see more of the world in their early 20s than some would see by their 80s. They had a son, Leon, and Dora got used to being a military wife.
“I learned how to find my place anywhere thanks to him,” Dora said. “And now I feel like I learned where to find my place in life thanks to him. How to center myself and find a new direction. So that’s why I think I’ve been dealing with this OK, because of him and everything he taught me.”
Dora remembers the morning of June 16, 2017, the day before the crash. Noe had come home for a week, and the couple were excited at being back together, even if it was just for a little while.
Noe left early that morning, and Dora stopped him at the door.
“As he was walking out the door, I got this urge of just blessing him. So I said goodbye to him, I gave him a hug. I felt so in love that morning; I knew I loved him, but that day felt like, ‘Oh my God, I’m in love with this man,’ ” Dora said.
“Que Dios te bendiga,” she told him. They both laughed at how silly she was being.
“And he walked out. That was the last time I saw him.”
The next morning, Dora got a strange call from a friend, asking to come over. Not long afterward, she noticed chats on her phone blowing up and learned about the crash. Dora started calling other spouses, some saying they’d heard from their husbands and that they were alright.
“I was like, ‘OK, he’s going to call me,’ ” Dora said.
Dora headed for the base, calling her mother-in-law on the way. She went to a meeting about the wreck, and spouses who hadn’t been contacted by their husbands were told to line up to speak with an ombudsman. Dora stayed calm and started consoling a wife who wasn’t keeping it together as well.
“Her husband had just gotten to the ship, and they were newlyweds,” Dora remembered.
The woman started crying, and Dora asked if she could pray with her. Not long afterward, the woman’s husband called.
“I was so happy for her. I was like, ‘OK, mine’s calling me next, I just know it,” Dora said.
Dora went to the chapel, walking up to strangers and asking them to pray for Noe, for her.
“They did. That was barely noon. It was the longest day of my life,” Dora said.
Later that afternoon, Dora was told to go talk to a crisis counselor and was informed that Noe was among the missing. She held onto her hope as the waiting dragged on and on.
“I know for my mother-in-law it was very different, because she only had the news to go by. So she could hear all the panic from the different news stations, telling them that there were sharks in the area, that there were bodies floating.”
Dora stayed calm, watching other spouses get their calls.
“It’ll be my turn soon,” Dora thought. It never was.
The Fitzgerald came in that evening, and Dora went down with the rest of the spouses to watch from the pier.
“She was badly hurt, and you could just feel it in the air. Everything just smelt so heavy,” Dora said about the vessel.
She watched as the crew disembarked. They looked tired, wearing mismatched clothes and missing boots.
“They just looked so broken,” Dora said. “I saw the families running to their loved ones, and I felt so happy. I felt so happy that they could go and hug them.”
Dora kept clinging onto hope, thinking now that Noe was trapped and would be rescued. He’d always been a planner, and he was a constant exerciser. He had everything he needed to survive. Gradually, the crew and their families dissipated. Someone asked whether Dora would be leaving.
“I said, ‘No, I’m not leaving until you give me my husband. I’m not leaving until you give me my husband alive or you bring me my husband’s body,’ ” she said.
That was the first time she acknowledged Noe might not make it back.
Someone set up a canopy and put out some coffee. Other wives set up shifts, waiting with Dora and other spouses who never got that call. About 2 a.m., Dora started pacing back and forth along the pier, up and down the length of the ship. She saw people watching her from the ship and went to give them a cup of coffee after a few laps.
“You know I’m not jumping or anything, right,” Dora told them. “Just walking to clear my head.”
She paced for hours, until daybreak. That morning, she saw a couple of seahawks. A crew member on the pier said it was a bad omen, that the birds meant the missing sailors were dead.
“Don’t talk like that,” Dora told her angrily. “They’re OK.”
A little before 9 a.m., one of the birds landed.
“It’s not normal behavior for a seahawk, they’re predatory birds, they don’t get near people unless they’re taking your food,” Dora said. “I just stared at it, and I knew deep inside it was time to accept it.”
Someone saw on the news that sailors were being taken to the hospital. Dora and the others drove there, waiting again for any sort of news.
“I would look out the window and I would just see seahawks everywhere,” Dora said. “They were just dancing and flying around. I knew he was trying to tell me something.”
Finally, Dora was taken into a room and was told Noe’s body had been recovered. She was warned that he might not look like himself, that the water might have changed him.
“I had a brother drown when I was 14. I said, ‘I know the drill, just let me see my husband, I’ll be OK,’ ” Dora recalled, maintaining her composure.
She was told she couldn’t touch Noe, but there was a chair she could sit on, and that she could stay as long as she wanted.
“He just looked like he was asleep, because it was salt water,” Dora said. “He was OK. He looked just like my husband.”
She said a prayer and said goodbye.
“That’s the last time I saw him until July, when he came home.”
Noe was buried the next month. He got a hero’s homecoming in the Rio Grande Valley. Dora received an endless stream of condolences and gifts from friends and strangers. The mayor of Weslaco attended every meeting with the funeral director to plan out the procession.
“When we came back for the funeral, the support was overwhelming, it really was, and I’m really thankful to the Valley for showing their best face in my time of crisis,” she said.
Gradually, Noe’s death became old news. Dora wanted to have something in Weslaco named for her husband, a post office or a park maybe. A park would be good, Dora thought. Leon could play there. She said she sent a letter and talked to someone from the city, but none of that ever happened.
“I wouldn’t say I feel betrayed, but I do feel forgotten,” Dora said.
Dora never forgot Noe. Sometimes, she’ll go in the closet and look for a shirt that doesn’t exist anymore. Everything Noe had on the ship was considered contaminated and was destroyed. Sometimes she’ll think of saying something to him.
“You never move on. A lot of people say that grieving has a time and a place; it doesn’t. Grieving comes in waves,” she said. “You just go forward. It becomes your new normal and you learn to deal with it. Some days are good days, you have a lot of peace in you, and other days you have a lot of emotion.”
Dora, now 29, has gone forward. She lives in Edinburg now and she’s studying marine biology at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. She hopes to work at an aquarium, or maybe with fish and wildlife. Maybe even at sea. She has a boyfriend now, a widower she met through a support group. They lean on each other and they’ve blended their families.
“I talk about Noe all the time as if he was still here, because to me, he is. I cherish all those memories we had, and all those experiences have definitely helped me. I focus on that and not on the accident,” she said.
There are pictures of Noe all over Dora’s house, especially over Leon’s bed. Now 5, Noe’s son points to them proudly, introducing guests to papa.
“He has his dad’s memory alive very strongly, and we keep him alive in our home,” Dora said.
Noe is alive in Dora’s home, in Dora and in Leon. The souvenirs in Dora’s trip room keep growing. There’s a map in the hallway with a variety of colored flags pinned in different cities across the world. Some are places Dora and Noe lived together, others they just visited. Some are where her new boyfriend has been. Others are where Dora and Leon have gone since Noe died.
In 2018, Dora and Leon went to New York, one of their first trips since Noe’s death. When they got back, they went to the trip room, pulled out Noe’s big travel book and tucked a new postcard between the pages.