Margatia Reyes is the sister of Elias Reyes Jr. Elias served with Second Battalion, Seventh Marines. In April 2014, Elias lost his life to suicide. In her interview, Margarita discusses some of the challenges that her brother went through, how she and her family have been coping and how she became a part of the extended 2/7 family.
Interview conducted on September 6, 2016 in Whittier, California
Present: Richard Hayden and Margarita Reyes
Transcribed by Richard Hayden
Richard Hayden: What is your full name?
Margarita Reyes: Margarita Reyes.
RH: Where are you from originally?
MR: I’m from southern California, kind of all over the place but originally from Escondido, California which is in north county, San Diego. From there we moved around all over. General areas were Temecula, Murrieta, Riverside, Moreno Valley, Banning, Beaumont and then eventually Los Angeles. So I’ve been in LA for about fifteen years.
RH: OK. What do you currently do?
MR: I’m a filmmaker and an actor. Not only do I do TV, film and commercials and all that but I also do film. I direct, produce write and I have different projects in different stages of development, production and post-production.
RH: What is your brother’s name?
MR: My brother’s name is Elias Reyes Jr.
RH: What branch of the military did he serve in and what unit?
MR: He was in the Marine Corps. He was an Assaultman, 0351 [Note: stated as “oh-three-five-one”]. He served with Echo Company, Weapons.
RH: Echo Company, Weapons Platoon?
MR: Echo Company, Weapons Platoon. He served from 2004 to 2008.
RH: And with 2/7, correct?
MR: With the Second Battalion, Seventh Marine Regiment.
RH: OK. What was his rank when he got out?
RH: Are you older or younger than he is?
MR: I’m older.
RH: How many brothers and sisters are in your family altogether?
MR: So there’s six of us – three boys and three girls. He was the youngest.
RH: He was the youngest?
MR: Yeah, he was the baby but he didn’t like to be called the baby because he wasn’t. [laughs]
RH: Was he the only one that served in the military?
MR: No. My oldest brother served eight years in the Marines and he’s currently in the Air Force. He is military police so he’s been doing that for the duration of his military career. He’s been in for a long time.
RH: What was Elias like growing up?
MR: He was funny, hilarious, super smart. Really smart. I would say he was probably one of the smartest people I’ve ever met in my life and I’ve met a lot of people. He always wanted to do things for others. Even though he was the youngest, he was much more mature mentally than his age.
RH: OK. Good to go. What motivated him to join the Marines?
MR: I think it was a few different things. Seeing my oldest brother go through his service, I think that was one of the inspirations. But I think one of the driving forces was 9/11. I remember sitting there in our living room watching the planes go into the towers. He was young. He was fourteen. He was really young. I think that was the point that motivated him to join.
He would train with my oldest brother. Even as a fourteen-year-old he would go out shooting, go out rappelling.
RH: How did your family feel about his decision to join?
MR: Well, with my oldest brother already having gone through it, we knew what was going to be involved. What we didn’t – or what I didn’t really think about – was that we’re in a war. We’re in a war. It wasn’t until seventeen-year-old Elias says, “I’m joining the military,” that, for me personally, it just kind of hit me that my youngest brother was going to go off to war. And I thought seventeen is really young. That was my personal view on it. I just thought that he could have done anything he wanted but he was motivated to do that. Whatever he was going to do, he was going to be the best at it. And he was!
I think my mom was supportive. She had to sign because he was seventeen. He said, “I’m going to sign up anyways. I’m going to join anyways. You can let me sign up now or I’m going to sign up later but either way I’m still going to go.” So we supported his decision but it was difficult.
RH: Alright. What was it like when he went to boot camp?
MR: For me personally, I guess I was just a really over-protective older sister. I was worried about him because I knew what he was going to be going through. We always supported each other and that’s what he wanted to do. Even though I was upset about it, it’s what he wanted.
RH: I’m assuming he went to boot camp down in San Diego?
RH: Were you able to go when he graduated?
MR: I think I missed his graduation but I got to see all the pictures and stuff. There was a reason why I couldn’t go. I don’t know if I was working but it was something that I couldn’t go unless I would have been.
RH: OK. How many did times did he deploy with 2/7?
MR: He deployed three times – twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan.
RH: OK. What was it like when he deployed? Maybe we’ll go through each. What was it like the first time he deployed?
MR: I’m just going to be blunt. It sucked. You know that they’re leaving one way and you don’t know how they’re going to come back – whether they’re injured or what’s going to happen, what they’re going to see and do. How they’re going to come back, if they come back, you know? So for me I tried not to watch the news but I couldn’t help it. I tried not to do research on what was going on over there but then I had to know so I versed myself in all these different things. I watched the news and I would watch for his face which is probably not the healthiest thing to do but you think about that stuff. I would think about, “What time is it over there? What is he doing? Is he eating?” You know?
We knew that he would shield us from things. He didn’t want us to worry but the more we didn’t know, the more we worried. We would hear about casualties and we knew that as long as we didn’t have someone coming to the door, we were maybe OK.
The family would do these fasts. My mom was organizing these fasts. She would be like, “OK. We’re going to fast today and tomorrow,” my mom is very religious, “we’re going to fast today and tomorrow and we’re going to pray for your brother so nobody eats meat.” We would do that every week or whenever she said it was time. So as a family we would all do that in our own homes even though we were kind of spread out.
So I think it was emotionally very – what’s the word? – draining because you’re going through life here. Look this place [motions to the Starbucks that we are sitting in]. Completely oblivious to what’s happening. People right now, as we’re sitting here, are dying. There’s a lot going on so I’d be sitting in class thinking about my brother, “What’s he doing? What’s going on?” So it was kind of hard. It was almost like time stands still. For me, that’s how it was.
RH: OK. Was that the same throughout all three deployments?
MR: The first one, I think, was the hardest. Even though my oldest brother had gone, he hadn’t gone in a time when there was actual conflict, when there were actual firefights every day. So that was different. But with Elias, we were always hearing something so that was hard.
The second deployment we all kind of got into this routine where we were all going to pray and do this or fast. Some are religious and some are not but we would all figure out a way to do the same thing. So for that second deployment we kind of got into that routine. We all thought, “OK, second deployment, that’s it. He’s not going to go back.” I remember picking him up and being like, “Yes! You’re home.” And then he tells us he’s going back again. [sobs]
So that third one, I think, was the hardest one for him but also for us because we thought we had him home. And then he said, “I need to go back because I can’t leave my guys out there. I can’t leave my Marines.” So he went back.
RH: Alright. Were there any notable events that occurred during the deployment?
MR: There were some. I think that – was it the first? I can’t remember if it was the first or the second one. I feel like it was the first one. He was in Iraq and there was an IED blast. They were on patrol and I think he was the fourth man back and I’ve actually seen the video of the blast because the insurgents posted it. It’s actually making its rounds on social media. I think that [Garret] Jones posted it. Jones was the one. Was that the first or second?
RH: That was the second one [in 2007]. I remember. I know Jones.
MR: So we saw that. I think he was the fourth one back and then you see the blast. In the account that my brother told us, Jones was thrown into a sewage ditch and my brother was thrown too but he didn’t get physically injured. But there was the brain injury from it. I know that that was one of those experiences where I knew it impacted him because he wanted to do more to help Jones and he couldn’t. That was one of the reasons why he wanted to be a doctor. He wanted to learn more about how to be able to help. He said that all he could do was – I actually read this account because he had written it in a journal as well – he said that all he could do was hold Jones’ hand and pray. He did the tourniquet and everything.
I know that that one caused him to lose part of the hearing in his ear. From that blast he would get the ringing in the ear. He would be like, “Talk to my good ear.” He was twenty-two! [laughs] “Talk to my good ear!” He would make these comments in a comical way but I knew. So that was something that really affected him.
And then it was in ’08, the third deployment in Afghanistan, when there was a suicide bomber and his Sergeant was killed. This is something else I read in his journal. He did tell us that he loved this Marine and they were friends and everything. It wasn’t until later that I read in his journal exactly what it is that he did. He helped carry him back to base, to wherever he had to go. I don’t remember how far it was but he had to carry his friend, with whatever he could, back. He said he didn’t want anyone else to have to carry that with them for the rest of their lives so he said, “I’m going to do it.” [sobs] So he took him back and then, apparently for two or three days after that, he had messed up his feet so much he had these bloody feet. He just kept going. He was like, “No, I’m going to take him back,” so his feet were pretty injured just from that for two or three days. So what does that do to you, carrying your friend back? I can’t imagine that. Who can?
I’ve heard other stories from other Marines. One time they came upon a child that was injured and there wasn’t anything they could do except try to make him comfortable and maybe try to hold him. There’s not much you can do when you’re out there. You don’t have the resources that you need. Motrin and water aren’t going to cut it, right? So those were, I think, some of the most impactful parts.
RH: Alright. So when he came home in 2008 after Afghanistan, did he get out immediately or did he say in for a little longer?
MR: I can’t remember exactly when he got out but I know that he got out in time to start school. My little sister and I were already at UCLA so we plotted that we were going to make sure that he got into UCLA. So we did all the research and my sister was like, “You’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that.” We completely just colluded to be able to get him back into school because he wanted to go to UCLA.
He lived with me from 2008 until 2012 while he went to community college, Santa Monica College, and then he got into UCLA and he lived with me until he graduated from UCLA.
RH: He graduated in 2012 from UCLA?
MR: He did, yes.
RH: What was he majoring in?
MR: He was a philosophy major. He had a really high GPA, too – a 3.8 or something like that.
RH: What was he like while he was living with you?
MR: He wasn’t exactly the same person that he was. Before he left, he was always cracking jokes. He had this really dry sense of humor. Sometimes he would make fun of you but you didn’t know he was making fun of you until an hour later. You’re like, “Hey!” [RH laughs] “Did you just say that?” He had this humor that sometimes you just wanted to bust up laughing. He’d make impressions and things like that. When he lived with me, he was mostly like that and he took up playing guitar. He had already played guitar when he was in the service but when he was living with me, he would do YouTube videos and do the tutorials. So I always heard his music in the house. He was always playing guitar, strumming and practicing. Also, he was studying. It was nice to have my brother there.
I was a single parent so it really helped that he was there. He was like a dad to my daughter which is why I brought her to the reunion because it was big for her, too. He would help me a lot. He would walk her to school or watch her.
For the most part that’s how he was but sometimes he would get really quiet. It was almost like he was a ghost walking around. I knew he was far away in his head because, if I knocked on his door and he answered with a certain tone, I knew he was going through something. Sometimes it would be my regular brother and then sometimes it would be someone else. I knew that something was happening because he would go through these waves. It could be anything. It could be, like, if someone slammed a door and it sounded like something or if somebody had a balloon that popped, it would put him on edge and it would take a little while for him to come back. He would just kind of take it. He wouldn’t say anything but I knew from the way he carried himself, his energy, he kind of withdrew. He would withdraw in waves and then he would come back.
Sometimes I would knock on his door just to hear him yell, “WHAT?” [laughs] I knew it was really hard for him to sleep so I didn’t want to wake him up but I also wanted to make sure he was still alive. [sobs] So it was a mix of him trying to fit back into this world but then sometimes stuff would happen. For a while it was great and we thought that he had gotten over this part and then sometimes he wouldn’t even come out of his room so I would go and knock just to make sure. So that was hard because I was afraid that I was going to come home and find him. [sobs] But for the most part he was doing good. It’s just those times where he would come home from school and he might not even look at me as he’s walking in where, as usual, the brother that I had would be like, “Hey! Let’s do this, let’s do that.” We’d just sit there and watch dumb shows on TV, comedy shows and stuff like that, and sometimes I’d get a glimpse of who he was before.
I don’t remember the question now. [laughs]
RH: That’s alright. You answered it beautifully. You kind of half-answered this but, leading up to his death, were there some signs?
MR: Yes. There was when he lived with me. I didn’t want him to move out but he wanted to move to be closer to his girlfriend up north. It got to a point where he completely withdrew from me and it was after one time something happened – oh! I had a puppy and the puppy was crying and I left him in a crate. The puppy wasn’t crying yet but I put the puppy in a crate because we were leaving for a few hours and then coming back. The barking of the puppy triggered something and he got really angry. He called me up and said some things that he regretted later. He apologized when I came home. He was like, “I’m sorry. I just…” I forget how he said it. It was like it wasn’t him. I understood why he got upset and what led up to it. I understood that that wasn’t really him yelling at me, that it was something else, but he felt horrible about it. He kept apologizing for it and I said, “You don’t have to apologize. I understand. It’s OK.” But I know that – I almost feel like he had a shame about it and I was like, “No. I don’t care about that.” I care that he’s not here with us anymore. [sobs]
So that was one thing that happened and he ended up just kind of going deeper in. I think that it was after he finished school that he was doing – he wanted to go to medical school and do a post-doc. So he moved up to be closer to his girlfriend. We thought, “OK. With his girlfriend, whenever he’s around her, he’s much better.” So he moved up and he stayed with my other sister in the Bay Area. He seemed to be better and then he ended up getting his own place. I think when he got his own place, he isolated himself. Even though he still had his girlfriend and he still had my sister up there and he started going back to school again, I think that isolation was bad. I think he should have been with family and others.
I think too much time to think alone is not healthy, especially – just normally it’s not – but if you’re going through something like TBI or you have physical ailments. I remember his whole body would hurt. Sometimes he was like, “My bones hurt,” you know? Or he just seemed like he was so young and he had so many ailments, so much pain throughout his body. He said he felt like an old man. He would get stuff like toothaches or colds and try to work through them but if you’re already going through all these other physical things, I think it just compounds on top of it. He never complained because that’s one thing that you’re taught, right? As a Marine you don’t complain. You just suck it up. You take it. But I wish he would have. Everybody else complains. [laughs]
He ended up living up there. We thought he was doing better. The last time I saw him was at Christmas and he passed away in April [of 2014]. I invited him to come down to my daughter’s birthday which was in March and usually he would have been right on top of it and been like, “Yeah! I’m there.” He was the one that was always trying to make sure that all the family was always together for the holidays. This time he said that he couldn’t and I thought, “We’ll miss you.” It wasn’t the way he usually was. He was usually the one like, “I’m there, no matter what.”
The last time I saw him in December, he seemed very calm and almost in a zen state. Looking back on it, I almost feel like he had given up way before that and he was just trying to hold onto something. Even though he was in school again, I think different things that were happening. The VA was not very helpful. They kind of jerked him around up there. I think with the VA, if you find somebody that’s good then they can help you but if you find somebody that doesn’t care about their job and doesn’t care about the vets they’re serving, that’s just going to transfer onto the people you’re supposed to be serving.
I don’t know what happened. I remember he sent me a text message saying, “Did you get a letter from the VA about my appointment?” I said, “No. I haven’t gotten anything.” He said, “They said I missed my appointment.” I’m like, “You didn’t have an appointment.” He goes, “I didn’t make an appointment but they’re saying I missed it.” So now he had to wait six more weeks to get an appointment. It was really strange. It seemed like such a convoluted story from the VA. I was like, “You didn’t make one. How could you miss it?” So they made him wait another eight hours and then they told him that they couldn’t see him for another six weeks and I was like, “If he’s hurting now, why are you making him wait so long?” So he had that.
He isolated himself. He didn’t want to tell us what was happening because he didn’t want us to worry about him. He didn’t want us to – I feel like he didn’t want us to know the pain he was going through, probably because maybe he didn’t think we would understand. And yeah, we’re definitely not going to understand what it’s like to be in a war and to miss your friends and to do things that you have shame for. But we love you and we want to be here for you and I would rather hear about what you’re going through than not have you around. Maybe we could help each other somehow, you know?
So he missed my daughter’s birthday but I did have a facebook exchange with him. In April, the second week of April, I get a call from my sister and she says he’s dead.
RH: Only if you’re comfortable, what was it like when you found out the day that he died?
MR: [sobs] I don’t know if I could describe it properly. It feels like a piece of you gets ripped out. Like, someone just tore a piece of my heart out and burned it up or destroyed it. I just remember saying, “No.” I just kept saying, “No.” [sobs] And then it just all kind of became a haze. Then I had to tell my daughter. He was like her dad. They had such a good relationship. I’ve never seen my daughter cry so much. She’s a pretty strong person but she just broke down and she was like, “Why?” She just ran into her room and cried for hours. [sobs] That was really hard.
I didn’t want to tell my mom. I was like, “I can’t do it.” So one of my other siblings did it. Because I felt like a mom to him. I used to carry him around when he was a baby. I used to watch him. I was the one babysitting him. So it was like a piece of me was torn out. [sobs]
So every single time that I hear about someone else doing the same thing, I immediately think about the pain that they must be going through to do that and then all the pain that the families are going to go through now. We all say the same thing, “I wish you would have said something.” I wish we could have done something. I would have been there in a second. I would have driven all night. I would have gotten on a plane. Even if you didn’t want to say anything to me, I would have been there just to sit by you, just hold your hand or something, or just listen to you breathe.
And then that whole month just felt like – I only remember bits and pieces of it. I remember thinking, “No, no. It’s not true.” It felt like a nightmare – it’s not true. And even when I saw him laying there in the casket, I still didn’t believe it. I was like, “No, that’s not him. That’s someone else.” It wasn’t until I touched his hand that I knew. [sobs]
Then I found out what it was like for him that last week. He was really struggling, just with getting up and just things like going to work. So that’s what I think about and every time there’s another suicide I think the same thing. It just opens everything back up. I’ve talked to other family members of other 2/7 guys that have taken their lives and it’s the same thing. We all reach out to each other almost immediately because it rehashes all the memories. If it hadn’t been for the support of 2/7 – the rest of the guys checking on us, fundraising for his funeral – I really don’t know how we would have gotten through it. That’s why I have so much love for 2/7. They took us in just because of who he was. That’s why I’m like, “Don’t mess with them!” [both laugh] Don’t mess with 2/7 because you’ll have me to answer to. I may be little but I make a lot of noise.
RH: Did the VA respond afterwards and, if so, how?
MR: [laughs] Do you know what they did? The VA sent us a bill for my brother’s last disability check because he didn’t live the full month of April. He only lived until the twelfth day so they wanted the entire month back. They sent us a bill saying, “We want this back.” We weren’t too happy with the VA at that point so my sister and I wrote an Op-Ed that was published in our college newspaper, the UCLA Daily Bruin, and that one got picked up by the Boston Globe. The Boston Globe did a story on my brother and how the VA had sent us a bill. Then it kind of went viral.
About six months later I get a new VA card in the mail for my brother. He got a new card. It said it was good until 2000-whenever. I took a picture of it and blurred out what I needed to and posted it online. I was like, “Look! The VA just sent us a new card for my brother. How the hell is he going to use it?” Another news source picked that up. So that just highlighted some of the issues with the VA. Everything is completely off over there. If you get lucky then maybe you have some good people there but the system is not created to actually help vets. I don’t know if it’s because it’s such a beast of a system that people get lost but if you were created to serve veterans, you better damn well serve veterans because they served you and they served us and we need to take care of them.
RH: Did they ever offer an apology or acknowledge anything?
MR: They sent a private apology through one of the reporters. I forget which reporter. I think it was the one from the Boston Globe. They sent a little e-mail apology or something like that. But I didn’t think it’s so much an apology. I think it’s like, just do your damn job. I don’t need an apology. If you did it right the first time, then so many others might get service. There are guys killing themselves in the parking lot of the VA. It’s not just one or two, it’s a lot. They try to keep it under wraps but people are going to start hearing about it.
As a family we decided to make public that it was a suicide because we didn’t want to contribute to not saying anything. Every family mourns differently, every individual mourns differently, and my mom is very religious. In her religion, she believes that if somebody takes their life, they’re not going to go to Heaven. I told her, “Mom, you knew him. Why would he ever be kept out of Heaven? He was such a good person. He always tried to help everybody.” That’s something that I’ve seen so much. The heart of people that are in the service, the majority is that they want to help. They want to be of service and it takes a certain type of person to be able to do that. A lot of people walking around only care about themselves – how much money they’re going to make, what kind of car they’re going to buy – but people like my brother and his brothers actually want to help other human beings. It’s almost like people with really good hearts are going in because they want to help.
Being in does this to you, whether it’s getting injured or – I don’t know. I’ve just noticed that and I don’t think most people see that. Most people fail to ever listen, you know? If you just listen to somebody that’s a vet, say, “Hey! How are you? What’s going on?” And just listen.
RH: How did Elias’ fellow Marines respond?
MR: In shock because he was usually the one that was calling other people and checking in on them. If somebody was having a hard time he would send them a message like, “Hey. This is what I’m doing,” or talk to them on the phone. “This is what I do. I meditate or I exercise or I do whatever. This is what I do to cope.”
He was actually going out looking for other ways to be able to get better – holistically, not with a bunch of pharmaceuticals. I remember having this conversation with him where he said that they were going to prescribe him depression medication. But the side effect of depression medication is suicidal thoughts. What the hell is the point of giving somebody medication for suicidal thoughts if it’s going to cause the side effect of that? That makes no sense to me. Why do you want to fill them up full of these pharmaceuticals and prescribe sixteen different medicines? Why don’t you just treat the root cause? They already know what’s happening to the vets, they are just choosing not to treat them.
Maybe this is going to go into some sort of conspiracy thing but I really believe that the VA is in bed with the pharmaceutical companies to prescribe the hell out of these expensive medications when why don’t you just give them a freakin’ joint? [laughs] You know? Because they don’t want to treat them. They don’t want to make them better.
RH: Has Elias’ death affected you spiritually and, if so, how?
MR: Yes. How can I describe it? I feel like I do feel him around sometimes. I grew up Catholic but I’m not a practicing Catholic but I believe in a higher being and I believe that when somebody passes on, they’re still, in some way, able to watch over us so I feel like I have a guardian angel. I call him my warrior guardian angel. This is going to sound strange but I feel like, when he passed away – I remember being at my sister’s house, I think it was the next day after he passed away – I could have sworn that I saw him sitting there. I don’t know if that was my mind playing tricks on me or what but I almost felt like he was just checking to see how we were doing. Every once in a while I feel like I’ll get a scent of something that reminds me of him. A big one is hummingbirds. I see hummingbirds and I automatically think of him.
I feel like I re-shifted my focus. Before I did a lot of community work with marginalized communities while I was still doing all the TV and film work. I was doing documentary and I still do all of that but this time around I added work with veterans. So any time that I can talk about my brother and veterans, I will talk people’s ears off. And I try to be involved in different things. I’m writing a comic book based on his life, creating a superhero of him. He becomes a superhero and he helps other vets. I read that comic book/graphic novel therapy is actually beneficial. I’ve done research on traumatic brain injury and treatments. I’ve done a lot to really learn as much as possible about what happened to him and also to be able to lend an ear to another vet.
I’m not a trained therapist or anything like that but I’ve been privileged enough to have contact with veterans who have been in distress and who I’ve been able to talk to. Even if it’s just talk to them until someone else, who is maybe a brother, can talk to them – maybe another Marine. I remember staying up one night until four in the morning on facebook with one of the Marines. I kept sending him messages because he wrote this cryptic message on his status. I tried to check in. It’s really interesting. I try to check in with a lot of them but then they try to check in with me too to see how I’m doing because I had a really rough time with my brother’s death. [sobs] So they check in on me and it’s kind of this reciprocal thing. A few of them have saved me too, you know?
So I was on facebook with him and he was like, “I took a lot of pills.” I was like, “OK. Just hold on. Let’s talk.” At the same time I was messaging other people and they were like, “We’re on it, we’re on it.” They were connecting to him and I was like, “Hey. How’s it going?” And I would send him messages to kind of distract him and tell him, “I’m going to stay here until someone gets to you.” And I stayed. I think it was four thirty or five in the morning that I was up until, just making sure. At one point, one of the guys was like, “OK. I got him.” I was like, “Good! You got him.” So it’s just stuff like that.
I hope it makes a difference because I care. There’s no ulterior motive or anything. I just care. Sometimes if the wife or the girlfriend maybe doesn’t even know that they’re going through that, I can be like, “They love you. You know that they love you. They’re there for you.” And just reminding them about their kids.
I just want to help. Just no other reason – just to help. Well, I guess there is another reason. I don’t want another family to go through it because it’s really fucked up. It’s the worst feeling.
RH: How has your family been dealing with all this?
MR: Everybody has dealt with it differently. One of my family members won’t talk about him – only a few memories here and there. Sometimes out of nowhere she’ll start sharing something. But then for the most part she’s kind of withdrawn on that. My oldest brother has had a really tough time but he talks more. He shares more with us. One of my siblings just completely disconnected from the family. Doesn’t even talk to any of us. He’s completely disappeared. I know where he is. I check on him – I know where he is. He just doesn’t know I know but I’m sure once you print this he’s going to be like, “Ah!” [RH laughs]
My little sister who was really close to him, she misses him a lot. We all miss him but she and my daughter were the most impacted because they were much closer. I was close with him but they were closer in age as well. Since my daughter and him were like a father/daughter relationship, that first Thanksgiving was the first get-together and my daughter told me, “I don’t want to do anything. Uncle Junior’s not here. It doesn’t matter anymore.” And her telling me that, I totally got it. Because it didn’t. But then we also have to think about everybody that’s still here. My daughter’s still here. She still needs me here. But it does cause you to question a lot like, “Well, why am I here?”
RH: That leads right into my next question. Has Elias’ death changed your perspective of life and death and, if so, how?
MR: Yes. I feel like the fragility of life, that it can just end at any moment, is much more present. I’ve always known that life and death are a normal thing and it’s a natural cycle of life but when it’s something like someone taking their life, for me, I didn’t blame him. I wasn’t mad at him. I knew he was in a lot of pain. I felt it. I felt that something was really hard for him and I had tidbits of information. It wasn’t until after he passed away that I got more of it. It just broke my heart that I couldn’t do more for him. So my view is much different but, like I said, I don’t blame him. It was something that he felt he needed to do. He was so smart and such an intelligent person that I know he put a lot of thought into it. So my only consolation is that he wasn’t in pain anymore – both physically and emotionally – and he didn’t hurt. That was some consolation. Obviously I wish he was sitting right there, [motions to a chair at the table beside us] here with us.
RH: He might be.
MR: Yeah, he might be. I feel like he is sometimes. [laughs]
RH: Alright. Recently just this weekend 2/7 had a reunion and you were there. What was it like connecting with Elias’ fellow Marines?
MR: Oh my God it was amazing! I have been communicating with so many. First of all, I was just so honored that I was even asked to come. It’s a huge deal. For me, this is a huge deal. For me, a huge deal is not all that Hollywood stuff that I get to work in which is my work. I do like working in it, I love my work, but this is something completely different. 2/7 is not going to fill the void of losing my brother but I’ve gained how many hundreds of brothers?
I was really excited to go and my favorite part – there were a lot of favorite parts – but one of my favorite parts was actually just sitting there and watching as people saw each other and recognized each other and gave each other these huge hugs and smiles! Being a fly on the wall and watching that, it made me so happy and it made me so sad at the same time [sobs] because he should be here. All the guys should be here.
But it helped so much for me because I felt like he was there in them. As soon as people found out that Elias was my brother, they would tell us stories or watch out for us because they knew we were the few females around a bunch of guys. [both laugh] They were like, “Nobody’s going to mess with you. You’re our sister.” But it was amazing. Just being there, just being a part of the whole experience. There were so many. I feel really lucky and really privileged.
It was kind of a roller coaster because I was really happy but then, at the same time, I was sad. I didn’t want it to end but I knew it had to. I had a lot of fun and I learned more about my brother. I was talking to one of the attendees and Mike Washington about being there and it’s a whole other – it just warms your heart to be there and to be a part of that. To hear a story from the Marine who says that my brother drew something for him and he had it tattooed on his arm. That’s going to be on his arm for the rest of his life. That feeling is just part of my brother, you know? It’s priceless. It was cool zip lining next to a few and doing archery. Hearing them making fun of each other and us – the jokes and listening to the laughter and the raunchiness and the Marine humor – all of it was perfect. It was.
RH: Alright. Good to go. This piggybacks a little on this but did you learn anything about him that you didn’t already know?
MR: I always knew that ever since he was a little kid he would draw. He was really good with sketches and things like that. So I learned that he did that piece for [Daniel] Giencke. It’s on his arm and I got a picture of it. I just learned that.
I’ve always known that he was a badass but I don’t think I ever got to tell him that. Seeing the love that his Marines have for him, that says a lot. That’s more impactful. It’s a testament of how much they loved him, how they take care of us.
One of the guys got a little tipsy and he was getting a little grabby. I just waved to one of them [both laugh] and he comes over. We knew we were being taken care of. There were at least five people watching to make sure that we were cool. So you know, stuff like that. They watched over us. Just hearing more stories about how he was a badass with a huge heart.
RH: What are some of the things that you have done to help you move forward?
MR: What are some things that I have done to move forward? I immersed myself in research on TBI, on brain injuries, on resources. I’ve connected with other non-profits doing work around different issues and causes for veterans. Whenever there’s something that has to do with bringing awareness, I’m usually volunteering. If a reporter asks me if I can talk to him then yes. I think just being much more active with this, even around my own circles, talking with people that otherwise would not have known. That’s helped me cope – being active and getting awareness to people who don’t know which is a lot. There’s a very small percentage of people that actually served in the military. What is it? One percent?
RH: It’s one or two percent or something like that.
MR: If you think about it, most other people don’t have any connection with somebody in the military. From me being so outspoken, I’ve actually had others come to me and say, “Oh. My brother’s in the military. He’s disappeared. Please keep him in your prayers because he’s going through some things.” Or things like, I had someone e-mail me two weeks ago and he’s doing really badly. He didn’t serve with my brother but I’ve gotten veterans from all branches that I’ve now connected with. So I’ve just become much more active utilizing my resources that I already have and my connections to bring more awareness to what’s happening to vets. That’s helped me cope with his loss.
My mom’s had a tough time though. She used to sing but she doesn’t sing anymore. She used to go out and perform but she doesn’t anymore. She rarely even plays music, I think. I haven’t heard her play music at all so she’s still in mourning. We’re all in different stages of grieving.
Now, whenever I get sad I just put that energy into doing something like the comic book. Anything that I can get into, I will. I wrote a series with two friends of mine and the character I wrote for myself is based on my brother but it’s a female. She’s a former Marine and I’m actually including flashback accounts of what happened to my brother and it’s based off of him. There’s things like that that I do – mixing the arts with healing. So that’s helped me.
And another huge thing that’s helped me is having that support from 2/7. That’s been the main thing because everyone that’s here drives me to keep going. When I’m tired or I’m exhausted, I get a message from someone and I’ve got to jump. I’ve got to do something. I’ve got to figure out how I can help. But then I don’t want to overstep my boundaries because I’m still not – I’m Elias’ sister but I don’t want to overstep. I don’t want to impose on anyone else, either. I just want to help in some way.
RH: Before I get to my last couple of questions, there’s just one question that I thought of. How did you get connected with the reunion?
MR: [laughs] When my brother passed in 2014, all of his Marines – most of them – connected with us. From there, because I was being very vocal and public around a lot of things around vet issues in the media, it more and more started adding me.
Then I got added on the 2/7 directory because they knew I’m in this chain. When I see someone in distress, I’ll send a message to so and so. So it’s kind of like, “Can you check on so and so.” And they’ll be like, “Someone’s already on it.” Or, “Oh shoot. What’s going on?” So it’s like this little chain. I’ve kind of inserted myself in a few of these chains. Then I pull back because I know that it’s not – I try to do as much as I can as Elias’ sister but I know that one of the brothers jumps in and they’ll take it because there’s that connection.
I think it was posted in the directory, the reunion, and I was like, “Oh, this is amazing! This is great!” I think it was Keith Branch that sent me a message. He knew I was in California and he invited me. I was like, “Are you serious? Really?” Then he goes, “Yeah.” I was beyond honored that I would be included. I was thinking to myself that I don’t want to take away from anybody else so I ended up getting a little Airbnb right outside of the resort. That way I don’t want to take any resources from anyone else. So it was Keith. Keith was the one that invited me and I thought it was amazing.
RH: Cool. Alright. Last couple of questions. It’s been in the news that a number of 2/7 Marines have committed suicide in the last couple of years. If you could communicate something to a 2/7 Marine, veteran or any service member who may be contemplating suicide, what would it be?
MR: That we love you and that, as much your pain is, as much as your physical ailments are, as much as it hurts, just remember that you have people that love you and would rather have you here than anywhere else. You’re important and you matter. How you feel should not be kept hidden away. How you feel is a direct result of what has happened. Something happened to you. You’re not weak. You’re not broken. You’re someone that we love we love and we want to keep around.
Not having my brother here, it’s not supposed to be that way. It doesn’t make sense to me. I understand it but it still doesn’t make sense. So, maybe that we love you and sometimes we’re so wrapped up in this crazy world that we live in, we fail to see what is really important and right in front of us.
RH: If you could communicate something to the families of service members who are dealing with the loss of their son or daughter due to suicide, or even maybe they’ve lost their son or daughter while they were deployed, what would it be?
MR: I think that would probably choose my words differently for either. I think that the families that lose somebody to combat, it’s almost like – it’s horrible to lose somebody, period, especially when you lose somebody so young. That’s who’s going off to war, young people. I think that’s just hard. Coping with that and that loss is completely different. I don’t even know how I’d be able to comfort anybody in that sense except for getting through day by day, you know?
I think with someone that’s taken their life, you’ve already welcomed them back. You think they’re going to be here. And then, I think it’s harder to understand someone taking their life as opposed to somebody who was killed in action. I think they’re two different instances. It’s both loss. It’s heart-wrenching. You don’t want to lose your loved one but I think with suicide, I think there’s more guilt involved with it. That, “Why didn’t I do more?” Whereas when you die in combat, you’re so far away from it. Physically, you can’t be right next to them, covering their ass so they don’t get shot, you know? Whereas with someone taking their life I think it’s even harder because you think that they’re safe now. Someone that died in combat, you know that there’s always that thought that something happened. It’s almost – I don’t even know what the word is to describe that. It’s two separate things. But grief and loss across the board is pretty universal. It’s missing that person and wanting them to still be around.
I think the only thing that I can tell people is that, although it never gets easier, you do slowly start to breathe. You start to not cry all day, every day. There’ll be a day where maybe you don’t cry for an hour and then the next day two hours. At one point you may not cry at all and then one day, all of a sudden out of nowhere you’re driving down the street and it hits you like a flood of emotions and you just start crying uncontrollably because they’re gone.
I don’t think there’s any right way to grieve. Everybody does it differently but I found that, for me, it was hard to breathe. It was physically hard for me to actually inhale and exhale. I felt like I was suffocating because my heart hurt so much. I felt like it was broken, if you can actually feel that. So I think it’s just take it one day at a time and take care of yourself. If someone wants to listen to you and they ask you how they are, tell them. Sometimes people ask you how you are and it’s not like they really want to know. You can tell because some people are like, “How are you? No, really. How are you?” Tell them. “You know what? I’m having a shitty day because of X, Y, Z.”
I think for others – I think this is important for others who maybe don’t understand how to be around someone that’s grieving – I think my biggest advice to them is just listen. Even if someone doesn’t want to say anything, just sit there with them. Just listen. I know that a lot of my friends that I thought were good friends turned their back on me. And the ones who actually stood up and stood beside us were our Marines: 2/7. I think that’s a testament to something much bigger. I’m a loyal person and when I see that I’m like, “OK. Nobody’s going to mess with 2/7.” [laughs]
RH: Alright. Good to go. Before I get to my last two questions, is there anything that I left out that you would like to address.
MR: You were pretty thorough.
RH: Thank you.
MR: I think I already talked about it. I think 2/7 but, even beyond that, there’s some pretty amazing individuals. Collectively, if you guys get together, you guys are going to make a huge impact. Maybe this reunion was the catalyst for it to affect change because it’s not just 2/7 that’s hurting, it’s a lot. It’s a lot of veterans. I feel like, individually, you’re all very powerful in your own way. You have so many different skills. I’m going to use that – you have a particular set of skills. [RH laughs] But it’s true and I think the reunion was a testament to that for bringing so many together. But if you guys got together and planned out something that you needed to change, it would happen. So I keep saying “lucky” and “privileged” because I am, to be able to call 2/7 family. I keep saying it over and over again but I feel like there’s a lot of power within this group – collective power – as far as to make a change in some way.
There’s a speech that happened [at the reunion]. I think there are a lot of really strong, intelligent, motivated, kind humans in this group – for the most part [both laugh] – and I think once you all realize the kind of power you have, you’re gonna fuck shit up. Seriously. That’s what I feel like.
RH: I agree.
MR: I feel like something’s coming and it’s going to be huge. I know that Noel [Guerrero] – he’s planning that three hundred mile run from Twentynine Palms down to San Diego. I’ve heard of people starting non-profits around different vet issues. Keith Branch is sailing around the world. That’s huge. And I’ve heard of different ideas – people starting and wanting to start organizations for veteran housing and things like that. There’s a lot that I know that is going to come. It’s already in the works. The wheels are already turning but you guys as a collective, there’s a lot of power there. And people are listening because even though you have the New York Times and you have these news outlets saying “the forgotten battalion,” I would own that. You guys are not going to forget about us. That’s the point. We’re not forgotten. We’re here, we’re staying, you’re not going to get rid of us VA! [laughs] But I feel like something big is coming.
RH: Alright. Good to go. My last couple of questions. Looking back on Elias’ life, what are you most proud of among his accomplishments?
MR: I’m proud of the man he became. Even through the physical ailments, the turmoil, all of that, he had integrity. He was a good man. He was loved by so many people. One of my friends who is a therapist told me that you have three deaths. I forget if it’s Toltec wisdom or something like that but you have three deaths. One is your physical death, the second is when you’re buried and the third death is when people stop uttering your name when they no longer remember you. Because we’ve been so vocal about who he was, what he did, because we want him to be remembered for how he lived as opposed to how he died, we try to always be helping. So now his name is going to live on to whoever remembers him and they’ll keep remembering him.
I know there’s been things that have happened in his name. For instance, somebody that we know created a presentation around post-traumatic stress and they do it for all their paramedics. We heard about someone else who decided to, in his honor, go and make care packages for veterans in a local VA back east. Little things like that keep going. People know his name and they do things. Even my niece. My niece got her friends to write letters to veterans. Little things like that keep going and going. You just don’t know where that’s going to go.
It’s not just Elias. Whenever I think of Elias I think of everyone else that’s already passed. I think of all their names. It’s not just him, it’s all these other names. And it’s not just a number because we’re human beings and we’re positive contributors to society. These are the type of people we want to be in our society. This is how we flourish, by keeping people like him around.
I could tell you he would always help my mom. He was always getting the family together – that was a big thing for him. He got through school, he got to UCLA. He wanted to be a doctor and help people. I could tell you all these things that he did but I feel like I’m just proud of who he was, the person he was, because he was just an awesome person, you know? So I’m just proud of him.
RH: Good to go. My last question. Since his death, what accomplishment of yours are you most proud of?
MR: I want to say that, in my work with being very vocal around veteran issues, I’ve gotten to talk to some people who might be able to change some things. I’ve gotten to do some really cool things too but I think the best part out of all that is feeling like I have this huge extended family. I think that’s the best part.
How can I describe it? OK, I’ll put it this way. I know that we’re in a really safe area. We’re in a safe nation but if it came down to me or 2/7, I would take a bullet for them, you know? But honestly, that’s how I feel. I know it’s different because the reality is that it most likely won’t happen here. But if I piss off enough people by being vocal? [laughs] But I would because it’s different.
I don’t think a lot of people really understand what that’s like. There’s a quote. It might be scripture – I don’t remember. I’m not that religious. But my brother actually posted it on his facebook. I’m going to look it up. [checks cell phone] “Greater love has no man than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” So that’s how I feel because they’ve helped me out on a whole other level and I would do the same if not more. My brother may have been in battle with a lot of the guys but now it’s a different battle for me. And I’m in it and I’m not going to quit unless someone mows me down! [laughs] That would be funny, huh? I mean, not funny but. [laughs]
RH: Alright! Anything else before we wrap it up?
MR: I think it’s amazing that you’re doing this. I think it’s really important to create this history that somebody will be able to read hundreds of years from now. Like I said, 2/7 isn’t forgotten. They may have been left out of a few things publicly but we all know what happened and I’m a pretty vocal person so if they come across me, [laughs] nobody’s going to forget.
RH: Well thank you very much. I greatly, greatly appreciate it.