Karen Mendoza, who lost her husband, Marine Maj. Ray Mendoza, when he stepped… (Rick Loomis, Los Angeles…)
For most of America, the war in Iraq officially ended last week with a speech-laden ceremony in Baghdad.
But for Karen Mendoza and the other 2,000-plus widows of U.S. military personnel killed in Baghdad, Fallouja, Ramadi and dozens of other cities and towns, the war in Iraq will never truly be over.
"Being a widow is a full-time job," said Mendoza, whose husband, Marine Maj. Ray Mendoza, 37, was killed in November 2005 when he stepped on a land mine while leading Marines from Camp Pendleton into combat near the Syrian border.
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In an instant, the life that the couple had planned when they met as students at Ohio State University was destroyed.
Gone were the dreams of staying in the Marine Corps near trusted friends and colleagues and maybe later, after retirement, owning an exercise gymnasium. Gone was the security of a structured life in a supportive and compatible community.
"Suddenly I had to have a plan A, plan B, and plan C for the next 20 years," Karen Mendoza said. Among the most important of those plans was "providing an environment for my children to grow and grieve."
The loss of any parent at an early age can be traumatic to a son or daughter. But in the case of Ray Mendoza, that loss was magnified by who he was: a larger-than-life figure, an Olympic-caliber wrestler, a charismatic leader to his fellow Marines and a doting father of two children who believed in equal parts love and discipline.
With the birth of each child, Mendoza already knew the year of the Olympic Games in which they could be expected to compete, his wife said.
In the six years since her husband's death, her goal has been to help their son and daughter continue to be inspired by their father, but not crushed by his absence or intimidated by comparisons.
"I want them to feel how blessed we were to have their father," Mendoza said. "I tell them: 'Don't you ever say you don't have a father. You have a father, he's just not here with you physically, but he's given you the moral compass, the expectations.'"
Kiana is now 18, a freshman in college studying international relations. She attended Blair Academy, an elite prep school in New Jersey, the same school that once took a chance on a low-income kid from a fatherless home in New York and propelled him to college, athletic stardom and the Marine Corps.
Aleksandr, now 14, is attending high school.
The teenager recently accompanied his mother as part of a group carrying a heavy, 13-foot wooden cross up a tall hill at Camp Pendleton. The cross is a memorial to Ray Mendoza and three other Marines from the same battalion who were killed in Iraq.
Karen Mendoza, now 42 and working as a marketing and public relations consultant, agreed to discuss the family with journalists who knew her husband. But she preferred that Kiana and Aleksandr not be photographed or interviewed and that the location of their new home not be identified.
A large picture of her and her two children dominates their living room.
A smiling picture of Ray Mendoza in Iraq is displayed beside a bookcase, prominent but not dominating.
"For the first couple of years, I had to establish our 'new normal,'" Karen Mendoza said.
Unlike some widows, she has never doubted the necessity of the U.S. decision to invade Iraq, depose Saddam Hussein and then fight the Sunni insurgency. Nor is she torn by the fact that her husband chose a profession that routinely caused him to leave the family for months on end.
"Ray was married to the Marine Corps — he loved it," she said. "I had to let go of the idea of competing with the Marine Corps. My children and I know he was surrounded by people who loved him. Why would I want to compete with that?"
Mendoza deployed to Iraq in 2004 as part of the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, a lead element in the April fight in Fallouja, west of Baghdad. It was the kind of fight that he had trained for.
"He just had a deeper passion running through his veins after coming home from Fallouja," his wife said.
But after a few months at home, he was eager to return to Iraq. When he was named to command a rifle company, he was overjoyed. He also had a premonition that he would not return alive; the couple talked about funeral and burial plans.
Mendoza was killed while scouting an attack position near Al Qaim. He was the only Marine killed in the blast — the deadly result of leading from the front.
For months, so many Marines and others came by the Mendoza home at Camp Pendleton to offer condolences that Karen Mendoza had to set time restrictions — no visitors after 7 p.m. lest the children be overwhelmed.
She sought permission to stay in base housing at Camp Pendleton longer than is standard for widows. She was reluctant to uproot the children from their on-base schools and friends.