February 11, 2017

At Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Adventist Family Finds Closure with Son’s Honor

If there’s anything tougher to imagine than his brother dying alone in an alley, mortally wounded at the hands of those he believed were friends, it’s not clear Jose Rojas, a Seventh-day Adventist pastor who for many years led the North American Division’s volunteer ministries, could easily conceive of it.

Jose Rojas, center, places a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Arlington National Cemetery, in remembrance of his brother, Gerry Gonzales, a U.S. Army veteran who was murdered in Los Angeles 28 years ago. Photo: Evan Bambrick

But 28 years after Gerardo (Gerry) Gonzales, met his fate in Los Angeles, California, Rojas and his family, all Adventists except for Gerry, found closure on February 4, with a solemn wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

After a troubled youth, which included gang involvement, Gerry served in the United States Army, and saw action in the Demilitarized Zone between North Korea and South Korea during an incursion by the North in 1976. He returned to the United States, married in 1980, and worked as a welder. In a telephone interview, Rojas said Gerry “had settled into a work life, no more gangs, and he was the top welder on his team where he worked.”

But the problems of the inner city were never far away, Rojas said.

“He went through a lot, as many urban families experience with the struggles of family and paying bills, trying to find his way after a life of serving in the military,” Rojas recalled. “One day, someone gave the order that Gerry needed to die.”

His voice lowered as Rojas added, “They used his friends, two guys, [who] received money to dispose of Gerry. I understand it was very inexpensive to kill Gerry.”

Gonzales’ body was found days later in the alley. He was quickly buried, before the family could arrange a funeral, Rojas said.

The pain engulfed Rojas, his two brothers, and his sister. Equally inconsolable were Rojas’ parents, who today reside in Ukiah, California. Even worse was a coroner’s verdict that Gerry had died not by violence, but due to an overdose — for someone whom Rojas said wasn’t using drugs. It turned out Gerry had been injected by his killers, and bites from ants in the alley left marks that resembled needle tracks.

The case languished for years, and eventually each of Gerry’s killers died, though neither was ever tried for the crime. In an interesting development, one of the men believed responsible was himself injured in a violent incident and taken to White Memorial Medical Center in East Los Angeles, where a Seventh-day Adventist chaplain was able to minister to him before he died.

Seventh-day Adventist pastor Jose Rojas holds his hand over his heart during wreath-laying ceremony. At rear are Dr. Darold Bigger, assistant to the president of Walla Walla University, and a retired Navy Rear Admiral who served as chief of reserve chaplains and Chaplain Paul Anderson, a Seventh-day Adventist pastor who directs the North American Division’s Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries. Photo: Evan Bambrick

Recently, Rojas learned of an opportunity to have a wreath laid at the Tomb of the Unknowns. He’d asked for a September 4 date, to remember Gerry’s birthday. Within half an hour of the request, the Department of Defense had an answer: February 4, a few days after Rojas’ application was filed.

Chaplain Paul Anderson, a Seventh-day Adventist pastor who directs the North American Division’s Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries, said the ceremony is the equivalent of the military graveside honors provided veterans whose families request them. Anderson, a retired U.S. Navy chaplain, spent two years of his career at Arlington National Cemetery looking after the interests of Navy families, and said he conducted nearly 1,000 committals. But, he said, “I had never participated in a wreath-laying. It’s a moving ceremony.”

The wreath-laying, Anderson said, is “a high honor of the nation, to those who have died in the service of their country, or who are veterans who have died anonymously.”

The chaplain said this commemoration represented a military welcome home of a sort.

“In some inexplicable way, it is kind of a homecoming for the ethos and the memory of the soldier who has passed,” Anderson explained. “In Gerry’s situation, he had an uncommon military experience in that he served in Korea when the North Koreans tried to attack and he was there. Because of that unique experience of valor, that probably changed his life forever, his memory now is being embraced in the national symbol” of the ceremony.

Rojas, separated by nearly three decades from the tragedy, was moved by the military’s response to his request.

“These men and women in the tomb guard will never know [Gerry’s] story,” Rojas said. “They stand there for millions, and they volunteer for these services. This truly is one of the largest blessings of my entire life.”

Also present were Dr. Darold Bigger, assistant to the president of Walla Walla University, and a retired Navy Rear Admiral who served as chief of reserve chaplains, and Flo McAfee Stewart, who served as a special assistant for public liaison to President Bill Clinton. A longtime friend, Stewart was once taken by Rojas to the spot where Gerry Gonzales died, and attended to support the pastor and his family.

Asked about the nexus of Adventism and military service — there are a number of church members in the armed forces, including those who emulate the non-combatancy role of the late Desmond T. Doss, Sr. of “Hacksaw Ridge” fame — Anderson framed it within the context of the movement’s longtime emphasis on helping one’s neighbor.

“I grew up in the church, my parents were Adventists, so they immersed us in the culture and traditions and faith and truths of Adventism,” Anderson said. “One of [those truths] was that we are always willing to serve. … Military service is one form, civil service is one form.

In return, Rojas, whose brother served the nation but whose case was neglected by its law enforcement when Gerry was killed, saw the event as a redemptive one.

“What began 28 years ago as an unfinished task in not following through with an investigation in the loss of my brother, concluded today, with solemnity and respect as my government’s military saluted my brother's memory,” Rojas said. “My family accepts this with humility and gratitude. Case closed.”

Arlington National Cemetery is the final resting place for thousands of American military members. Photo: Evan Bambrick