A soldier with a big smile, and a genuine heart of gold

Even before I spoke with Patty Gutierrez on the phone, I had
been thinking about her and her three young sons. It’s unspeakable
to lose a husband and father in the prime of his life, unfathomable
that the tragedy happened on Christmas Day in Afghanistan and
unbelievable that their 13th wedding anniversary came three days
later
– the day I first spoke with her.
I just can’t imagine … I can’t.
Even before I spoke with Patty Gutierrez on the phone, I had been thinking about her and her three young sons. It’s unspeakable to lose a husband and father in the prime of his life, unfathomable that the tragedy happened on Christmas Day in Afghanistan and unbelievable that their 13th wedding anniversary came three days later – the day I first spoke with her.

I just can’t imagine … I can’t.

The pain will never go away. Time will mitigate it, but Sgt. David H. Gutierrez leaves the type of legacy behind that is, in a sense, a double-edged sword – those who loved and were close to him feel privileged and happy to have had David in their life. And that’s exactly what makes the loss so bitterly painful.

His mother Olga said, he was a “very happy man” – in many ways, an ordinary American Joe. He loved his mom’s home cooking, football, his family, his military career and friends and, most of all, he loved his wife.

When I spoke with Sgt. Gutierrez’s amateur football coach, it started like all difficult conversations between people who don’t know the first thing about one another. But after we got the first play out of the way – the off-tackle run up the gut – he told me how David inspired him. And it went beyond his great spirit, leadership skills, hearty laugh and commitment to the team. It went right to the heart of everything. It went right to the love.

“He was married 12 years or so, and he told me this year that he was just as head over heels for his wife as when he first knew she was the one … That’s how he inspired me, I wanted my marriage to be more like that.”

That’s what Coach Steve “Maty” Matychowiak had to say. That’s what stuck: the love David shared with Patty.

That love is what will help Patty and her sons – Andrew, Jeremiah and Gabriel – become better not bitter when the road ahead gets tough. It as, as my Uncle Father Dan has often said from the altar, the quintessential life choice – magnified, in this case, by tragic circumstances. After the pain, we all have to choose: bitter or better?

After briefly meeting Patty Gutierrez face-to-face – a hug, a few comforting words shared – I have no doubt she will choose the latter.

The eyes are the window to the soul and hers are deep, committed and filled with care. They are like still pools filled with understanding waters.

Her 35-year-old husband was career USA military in an age filled with risk. Men left the base in Hawaii and Fort Lewis, they shipped out, came home, left again – and some didn’t come home. Everyone understood the reality of war. It doesn’t make it easier, it just makes it far less abstract.

Patty laughed when she told me how she met David – he a flirting bouncer at a nightclub in San Jose, she a willing detainee at the door for a few minutes, perhaps just long enough to explore the possibility of meeting the man of her dreams. You just never know when love or tragedy will find you … we just can’t see what’s right around the corner.

I can tell you that Patty has been genuinely touched by the goodness of the people in our town. There is so much virtue in Gilroy. It bubbles forth in tough times. Eric Gebhardt, manager of the Hilton Garden Inn, provided rooms for the family and the casualty assistance officer. The veterans offered up their hall for the reception. Mark Zappa rallied the Patriot Guard motorcyclists to provide escort and tribute. Adam Sanchez offered to cater the reception. Aggie Ternansky helped with care baskets that included children’s books dealing with grief … the list is long and I’m sure there are many more – most of whom didn’t know David – who offered aid and comfort. They knew of his service to the country, they knew of the family ties to Gilroy and that is all they needed to know.

Patty has her boys now. She will keep her husband’s memory alive with them while struggling mightily with the loss. But she is a survivor.

She “soldiered up” every time I spoke with her on the phone, her voice cracking occasionally. I had to stop once to choke back the emotion. She did not.

When I read the quote from her casualty assistance officer, Daniel Morak, after the plane carrying David’s body landed in Hollister, it didn’t surprise me. “She is an amazing woman,” he said. “She amazes me every day. They are a very strong family and they have tons of support.”

That from a guy who lives every day shoulder to shoulder with godforsaken tragedy.

At Fort Lewis in a few days, David’s family is going to receive the prestigious Black Lion Award honoring his character as a football player. There will be many military honors bestowed upon him as well.

Then, life will return to “normal.”

I only have these wise words, from one Rossitor Raymond, to offer – words that I have kept to remind me about life, loss and love.

“Life is eternal;

and love is immortal;

and death is only a horizon;

and a horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight.”

David will always be within sight of those who knew and loved him.

There is great comfort in that.

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