Dear Mom . . . I don't really know if I have the words to express to you how I'm feeling but these messages from you have brought me much happiness. . . .
On Tuesday, 27 agonizing days after Staff Sgt. Andrew Ramirez Jr. was taken prisoner by Serbian forces, Red Cross officials came to the East Los Angeles elementary school library where his mother works and handed her a letter from her son.
Vivian Ramirez scanned the familiar, neat block printing.
She clutched it to her chest and cried.
For the near month that Andrew Ramirez and two other American soldiers have been held captive, his family has been living in a dark daze, clinging to hope, trying to ward off terror. This week, Red Cross officials were finally allowed to visit the captured soldiers, deliver messages from their families and fax letters back.
"To know he's OK is everything," Vivian Ramirez said in an interview at the school library Tuesday afternoon. "I don't want to hear this and that from the officials. I wanted to see it for myself."
She kept pulling the letter out of her desk to stare at Andrew's writing. It looked strong and clear. He's OK, he's OK, she thought.
She would sleep with it under her pillow that night. "If I can't hold him, I'll hold his letter."
. . . It was great to hear from all of you. I want you all to know I love and miss you very much and I think about you daily. . . .
Andrew Ramirez Jr. grew up--loved and doted on--in his small East Los Angeles home, a boy who loved video games and baseball in the park, his mother said. He plastered his room with Raiders and Dodgers banners and went fishing with his grandfather. He worked at McDonald's after school to earn extra money.
When he came home one day during his junior year of high school and announced that he wanted to join the Army, like his big brother before him, Vivian Ramirez said she "felt her heart drop to her feet."
Are you sure? she asked him. You have a whole year to decide. Yes, he said, I'm sure. I want to do it.
Maybe he thought it would be exciting, like the toy soldiers he played with as a child, knocking them over with rocks and firecrackers, his mother thought. He probably never thought he would be sent into battle, she said.
He graduated from Schurr High School in Montebello in June 1992, and by early July he was headed to Kentucky for training. It was only supposed to be two years, but two stretched into four, then seven.
He was supposed to come home this May or June, the first visit in a year and a half. He wanted to see the new "Star Wars" movie when he got back, he told his family.
. . . I want you to know that I can't wait to be home with everybody again. And thank you for thinking and caring about myself [and other POWs] Chris [Stone] and Steve [Gonzales].
When her son was stationed in Germany in early 1998, Vivian Ramirez would get a phone call or letter from him every two weeks. He would talk about the people he was meeting, the places he saw, how he bought a car and had to learn to drive it in a foreign country.
One day, he told her he was assigned to a peacekeeping mission in Macedonia. He was excited. "We're going to help the people over there," he said.
Vivian Ramirez said that at first she didn't realize he was headed into such a hot spot. About three weeks before his capture, she asked her boyfriend about the reports she had been hearing about fighting in the Balkans. Is that where Little Andy is? He nodded.
In late March, Andrew called his sister Nadine and said his unit was getting sent back to Germany. He was disappointed. He wanted to stay and help, he said.
A week went by. Vivian Ramirez started to get a strange feeling. He would have called if he was back in Germany by now, she thought. I'm really worried about Little Andy, she told a neighbor.
The next night, her boyfriend called her at Kmart, where she works a second job as a supervisor in the evenings. Come home, he said. She could hear in his voice that something was wrong.
At first, she didn't see any official cars when she pulled up to her Baldwin Park house. She breathed a sigh of relief. Andy always said they would send somebody if anything happened to him.
But when she walked in, an Army sergeant was waiting in the living room. Your son is missing, the sergeant said. All she could do was cry.
With that, the family's quiet life was turned upside down. They were thrust into an international story, visited by important officials, besieged by the media.
"It's strange," Vivian Ramirez said. "We're just an ordinary family and all of a sudden everyone wants to know about my life."
When Andy comes home, she jokes, she's going to lecture him for putting her in the media spotlight.
"Boy, what did you get me into?" she'll tell him. Her voice drifts. "I can hardly wait to tell him that."
. . . It's good to hear people are supporting us and I hope they are helping you and everyone else feel better.
I pray Mom, I pray every day to be home with you guys again. . . .