How a Cemetery Saved an Iraq Veteran's Life

A cemetery saved Andrew Alonzo's life. Before leaving for Iraq in 2003, the 13-year Marine Corps veteran already knew the cost of war. For nearly six years Alonzo worked at the Fort Logan National Cemetery in Denver, a 214-acre resting place for more than 75,000 veterans. His duty: setting those iconic marble headstones, mined in Georgia, mostly for a passing generation of World War II vets. After a year in one of Iraq's deadliest regions, Alonzo found himself back at his old job. Like so many vets returning home, his fight was far from over. NEWSWEEK's Jim Moscou visited the 46-year-old Colorado native last week at the cemetery. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Your friend, Staff Sgt. Mark Lawton, was killed in Iraq in 2003. What happened?
Andrew Alonzo:
Ambush. It was the first time we got ambushed on both sides of the road. We were near the Iranian border. He was a comrade, a good friend. When I found out he was a casualty, it was like, "Wow, I just talked to him." I took a photo of him the day before sitting under a tree, reading a Bible. It was the last photo ever taken of him.

You had to leave the Marines during force-reduction cuts in the mid-1990s, and you later joined the Army Reserves. Did you think you'd ever be called up for war?
No, I never did. I had been on vacation when I got the call. It was a shock. I walked into the [Fort Logan cemetery] front office, and said to the foreman, "I got to go." And I was gone. Three months after the war started we went in, the 244th Engineering Battalion out of Boulder.

You left your job here the day you learned you were activated?
It was that quick. The next morning I had to report to the reserve center. We got orders to go to Tikrit, in the Sunni Triangle. We patrolled all the way to the Iranian border. That's where we lost Sgt. Lawton. [Alonzo approaches the gravesite of 28-year-old Marine 1st Lt. Matthew R. Vandergrift, who was buried with full military honors on April 28, 2008, one week after he was killed. The grave is covered in flowers. He takes a moment of silence] This is Lt. Vandergrift.

Were you involved with his internment?
Oh yeah. I make sure the headstone is set properly and the final preparation is correct. I always oversee the closing of the KIAs [graves of those killed in action]. I'm the last one to leave the gravesite. I take pride in being the last one to say farewell. That's one thing I hold dearly, being the last one to leave. It gives me closure. It's one of those things I don't let anyone touch. That's my job. And I want to make sure everything's perfect.

Do you say anything?
I always do.

As an Iraq vet, do you feel a particular responsibility to people here in the cemetery?
Always. Yeah. Especially with the KIAs. I take pride in the whole cemetery. But I have connection to these men [Iraq casualties]. We were all there.

Did you ever think you could end up in one of these graves?
Yeah, I did. In fact, I was supposed to go out that day Sgt. Lawton was killed. The night before … I made the decision not to go. But here's the crazy thing: when Sgt. Lawton was killed, they put us into radio silence. No communication with the outside world. I used to talk to my family on the Internet every night. That all stopped suddenly. But my name was on the [patrol] roster still. So when word got back to the States there was a casualty, my family was told it was me that was killed.

Oh my God. A casualty officer went to your family's house and notified your family?
This is before they got a handle on the casualty officers and informing families. It was during the beginning [of the war]. They were still trying to figure how to, you know, do it. So through the [battalion's] family support group, someone spread a rumor it was me. They told my fiancée. And she didn't know how to approach my mom.

How long did this go on for?
Three, four days.

Your family thought you were dead for three or four days?
Yeah. They thought it was me. At the time my mom was going blind, but as soon as my fiancée walked in the room, she knew something was wrong. She just passed out. So for three, four days they were waiting for someone to come to the house. So when communication finally opened up, my fiancée answered the phone, and it was, like, a total relief. She was there with my mom, and I told her to put Mom on the phone. I said, "It's me, Mom." There was crying. I said, "Calm down, Mom. Everything's fine. We're regrouping. I just couldn't call you. I'm alive. I'm fine." The way they are notifying [families] now, it's the proper way to do it.

Did you think about Fort Logan while in Iraq?
I wondered what was going on back here. Did they receive a KIA while I was gone? My job before I left was the headstone setter. And I was hoping they were doing it right.

What are people not understanding about what's going on out here, in Fort Logan?
They don't really realize the sacrifice a lot of these guys have made. People forget. The rest of society, they say they know about the war, but they don't really know what these families are going through. They are not in tune with what's going on. This war has gone on so long, people are sick and tired of hearing of it. I can understand people are concerned about the economy and jobs, and everyone has to survive, but a lot people have pushed the war back. We still have guys over there fighting.

There's Danny Dietz's grave . [Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Danny P. Dietz, 25, was killed in Afghanistan on June 28, 2005]
Yeah. His mother comes out, like, twice a week. You always see someone out here, taking care of these graves, especially the mothers. They all come out, after these many years. I always tell myself, "Thank God my mom didn't have to go through that." It seems like the mothers always take the loss harder.

With all the violence and death you saw in Iraq, most people would be surprised you would come back to your job at Fort Logan.
At first I didn't want to come back. I really didn't. When I arrived back in Colorado, it took me at least two, three months to decide whether I'd come back or not. I was going through a lot of issues. I didn't want to talk to people. I became a hermit. I stayed indoors. I wouldn't venture outside for a brief time. I would never drive around. It took me a while to get out, back into society. Honestly, I was thinking about suicide.

What saved you?
My fiancée. My family. I had the support of my family. They were there. They encouraged me to seek therapy, which I did. That helped. Then I decided I needed to get to a place where I can get comfortable. And that was back at the cemetery. After two, three months, I was feeling a sense of calmness. I wasn't having those [suicidal] feelings. Now I have a purpose. This is what I want to do.

This was a place of healing for you.
It was. It's the comfort I needed ever since I got back. I think if I had never returned to the cemetery, I would have never had the closure I have now. It can be hard sometimes. It brings back some memories. But I take such pride. Coming back, I cherish life so much more. I know I'm alive. I'm still here. I appreciate life everyday. I'm just lucky.

But you've now decided to leave the cemetery, moving to Alabama with your fiancée. Are you nervous to leave this sense of comfort?
Yeah, I am. I'm leaving Memorial Day weekend. But I'm at the point where I'm ready to move on to the next step. I'm feeling good about it. I'm ready for the next chapter in my life.