NOBLE, Okla. – Catherine Alaniz wasn’t prepared for the sight. Three months after she buried her husband and one month after she gave birth to their daughter, the 19-year-old widow saw his blood on the cover of Parade magazine.
The photograph became world-famous instantaneously and was published in newspapers and magazines around the world as a symbol of war’s devastation.
In one of the most iconic battlefield images ever captured on film, two wounded Operation Desert Storm soldiers in an evacuation helicopter have just learned who’s in the bloody body bag at their feet. It’s their friend and Catherine’s high school sweetheart, Andy Alaniz.
The photo eventually helped Catherine learn the truth about how her husband died and that the government had lied to her about it.
Throughout the ordeal, her parents were her support staff. She and Andy were married so briefly and he was deployed to the Middle East so quickly they didn’t have a chance to get their own place. So she lived with her parents and moved with them from Texas to Oklahoma City when her father got a promotion.
In 1995, four years after losing her husband in Iraq, Catherine’s father was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing. She officially identified Claude Medearis’ body, but authorities already knew who it was. The blast was so powerful, the nameplate from his desk was embedded in his chest.
“My husband drove a Bradley in Iraq. Timothy McVeigh drove a Bradley in Iraq,” Catherine Alaniz-Simonds, since remarried, said last month. “My husband gets killed in Iraq. Timothy McVeigh gets to come home and then goes to Oklahoma City four years later and kills my dad. Weird, huh?”
Twenty-one years have passed since David C. Turnley’s acclaimed photograph – through Alaniz’s death – changed the way a generation viewed war.
In an attempt to learn the lasting impact of the traumatic moment, The Buffalo News visited the two soldiers in the photograph and Alaniz’s survivors, whose wounds from Operation Desert Storm hadn’t healed when fresh ones were inflicted at home.
Turnley’s compelling image appeared after a lopsided war that claimed few lives came to an end. Without a draft, Americans weren’t as emotionally involved in previous wars and watched images on CNN that just as easily could have been produced in Hollywood. Military censors made sure nobody read about or saw American soldiers suffering, let alone dying in a faraway desert.
Turnley’s photograph changed that. Orchard Park native Ken Kozakiewicz wails in the moments after learning Alaniz, his former roommate at Fort Stewart, Ga., has been killed. Michael Tsangarakis of Queens lifts his head bandage to look at the body bag next to him.
For the Alaniz women, 2012 is a milestone year of sorts, a bitter chronological reminder of how much tragedy they’ve experienced so early.
Andee Alaniz turned 21 last month. She now has outlived her father. He was 20 and wasn’t sure if his wife was carrying a son or a daughter when a rocket screamed through the cabin of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle he was driving in Iraq.
Catherine Alaniz-Simonds looks too young to have two adult daughters (one of them married) and a 16-year-old. Catherine will turn 41 in August. That’s how old her father was when he sat at his desk in the Murrah Federal Building the morning McVeigh blew it up.
Vows, then goodbye
Andy and Catherine Alaniz had a flawless marriage. They never argued. He never left his dirty socks on the bathroom floor. He never failed to put the toilet seat down. He never came home late after carousing with the boys.
They weren’t married long enough.
“My biggest worry when Andy died was that she lived with perfection and nobody would ever reach it,” Catherine’s mother, Sharon Medearis, said. “How could anybody live up to perfection?”
Alaniz already was in the Army when he proposed to his high school sweetheart. He flew from his base back to Corpus Christi, Texas, to get married June 29, 1990, but had to return to the barracks alone and with no honeymoon.
The plan was to move in together on base, but eventually came word Alaniz would be deployed to the Middle East. Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait, and the U.S. was gearing up for war.
Andy and Catherine still had two blissful weeks together in August 1990. Alaniz’s uncle, also in the Army, had a tiny base house at Hunter Army Airfield. They spent much of those two weeks on a twin bed, acting like newlyweds. Catherine also cried a lot. Garth Brooks’ ballad “If Tomorrow Never Comes” became their theme song.
The last time Catherine saw her husband smile and touched his dark skin was through Hunter Army Airfield’s chain-link fence on Aug. 23, a day before the 24th Infantry Division departed for Iraq.
Alaniz, still a teenager for three more months, was interviewed by a Newsday reporter about the anxieties of being deployed for a possible war that seemed predicated more on crude oil than global altruism.
“A soldier’s job is to do what he’s told,” Alaniz said in the article. “I try not to think about the reasons and all that, although I do agree it’s OK to be going over.”
Alaniz was asked what went through his mind when he first learned he was going to Iraq.
“I was convinced I was gonna go over there and get waxed,” Alaniz said, his bride still holding onto the fence.
Andy Alaniz is forever 19 years old in Catherine’s mind: square jaw, dark eyes and thick eyebrows, but a baby-faced boyishness underscored by his slight frame.
They wrote to each other every day he was gone. She saved all the letters, photographs and mini-cassettes, preserving a husky voice that sounded like a kid who was trying sound grown up.
She has read his letters and listened to the tapes too many times to count and recently hauled them out for a visitor to sift through on the coffee table at her newly built and immaculate home in an Oklahoma City suburb.
In his letters and on the tapes, Alaniz says things a 20-year-old would say. He’s playful. He’s horny. He’s weary of his parents nagging him – even from 7,500 miles away. He’s in love with his wife and excited about their baby on the way. He’s eager to get back home. He wants to be a cop; no more pizza shops for him.
Alaniz also complains in his letters about being bored. On Feb. 22, 1991, he writes that “a little border skirmish would be nice” to break up the desert monotony.
Catherine’s baby shower was a few nights later. Andy’s cousin called and breathlessly reported Kuwait had been liberated.
“She said ‘Catherine, they’re coming home!’ We were all hooting and hollering and so excited,” Alaniz-Simonds said. “That was the day he was killed. So he was coming home – in a body bag.”
With the ceasefire mere hours away, Alaniz and another U.S. soldier were killed by friendly fire – the Army’s official cause of death initially stated Alaniz drove over a land mine – while making a sweep of Jalibah Airfield, one of their company’s final objectives before coming home.
A commander’s battle review obtained by The Buffalo News cited another battalion’s “battlefield confusion” for the mayhem. Between six and 18 depleted-uranium rounds were fired on a group of Bradleys, striking three.
One of the 120 mm rounds ripped through the right side of Alaniz’s vehicle, entered his lower right back and exited his left abdomen. Kozakiewicz and Tsangarakis were in the other Bradleys that were mistakenly hit.
Alaniz kept a diary his bride didn’t see until after his death. The last paragraph of his final entry – at 0300 hours on Feb. 27, 1991 – reads:
“Saddam complaining about allies still attacking after he made an ‘honorable retreat.’ You ask me, we gave him more than enough time and time is up. With the liberation of Kuwait almost complete, it’s time for the destruction of Iraq. * I love you Cathie Alaniz *”
Daughter left behind
That Andee Alaniz is her father’s daughter is unmistakable. She has his dark eyes, cheekbones and freckles. The resemblance makes Andy’s absence easier for Catherine to handle, because it proves he left a significant part of himself behind.
Andee is a tiny young woman, 5 feet tall and determined to bulk up to 100 pounds someday. She has long black hair, wears her father’s dog tags around her neck and gets a dimple on her chin when she cries.
On Andee’s right shoulder is a tattoo. The dates her dad was born and died are underneath an inscription: “Seize the day,” something she admittedly hasn’t done in the past.
Even though the government will pay for her college, she has chosen to work various jobs instead. On June 5, however, she began coursework at Oklahoma City Community College to become a respiratory therapist.
“He was so mature for being 19 to 20. He had to be,” Andee Alaniz said of her father. “I look at myself and say ‘I don’t have a job. I’m just starting school. I’m 10 steps behind him.’ It’s pretty hard to think about what he was going through over there.”
The day before classes began, Andee for the first time took her father’s diary, the box of letters and his mini-cassettes into her room and closed the door. She had been intimidated by college and wanted to immerse herself in what her father was doing at 19 and 20 years old.
What she took away from the letters was his fearlessness of what was on the horizon and an unconditional affection for his bride and a baby he hadn’t met yet.
“He will always be my daddy, and he will always be fantastic,” Andee Alaniz said. “I was always afraid that because he didn’t get the chance to meet me, I didn’t mean as much to him. But I can tell in his journals and his letters and his tapes that he loved me.”
Bomb’s lasting damage
No matter how much she tried, Catherine couldn’t find meaning in Andy’s death. She and her baby girl were cheated of his presence in their lives.
Catherine found her purpose after the Oklahoma City bombing, her father among the 168 killed. She was convinced she was put through her tragedy in 1991 to help her mother get through this one.
“We were each other’s rock,” Sharon Medearis said. “She knew what I was going through; I knew what she had been through.”
Search crews needed nine days to find Claude Medearis’ body in the Murrah Building rubble known as The Pit.
“Those nine days,” Alaniz-Simonds said, “were longer than the six months Andy was in Desert Storm.”
Catherine was among those who testified in Denver at the McVeigh and Terry Nichols trials. To cope with the stress away from the courthouse, she volunteered at a local church, making ham-and-cheese sandwiches for the homeless during the McVeigh trial and visiting AIDS patients during the Nichols trial.
She also made a dear friend. Oklahoma City police officer Keith Simonds, a Murrah Building first responder, testified at the Nichols trial.
Simonds’ heroism was captured in a Daily Oklahoman photo that was printed around the world. In the photo, Simonds and another officer are exhausted and bewildered, having just pulled Sharon Littlejohn’s body from the ruins and laying her on the ground.
Catherine now has had two husbands who were featured in world-famous photos of tragedy. She married Simonds under the Survivor Tree, a 90-year-old elm across the street from where the Murrah Building stood. Tires and car hoods dangled from the branches after the blast, but the tree came back as a symbol of resilience.
“They should have tied McVeigh to the Survivor Tree,” Alaniz-Simonds said, “and let each family member use the glass from the blown-out windows to take a nick until there was nothing.” Instead, she and Simonds watched McVeigh die by lethal injection on closed-circuit television back in Oklahoma City.
Given all Alaniz-Simonds has endured, there would be no need to explain if she drifted into a psychological trench. Her loved ones almost certainly would pull her along without asking questions.
Alaniz-Simonds has gone the other way. She has added causes to her life. She has volunteered and given speeches at the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum. She was president of Concerns of Police Survivors, an advocacy group for family members of police killed in the line of duty.
She has given herself to others – literally. Her father’s twin sister suffered from kidney failure and needed a transplant. McVeigh took away the obvious donor. But Alaniz-Simonds was a match, and gave a kidney to her aunt in 2009.
To support a friend with breast cancer, Alaniz-Simonds shaved her head on Easter 2011.
Then there was the time she made Simonds help her bring a homeless guy back to the house. She wanted to get him out of the blistering heat, clean him up, give him a shave and feed him.
Simonds tried to talk her out of it, but quickly realized that would be impossible. He eventually watched the homeless man walk out of their house in a pair of Simonds’ new sneakers – straight out of the shoebox.
“You think I had it rough? Not really,” Simonds said. “When you hear her story about her husband and her father, and she’s still going on? It’s incredible. She’s very strong-willed. She will always fight for herself, her family or somebody in need.
“The lesson she’s teaching is ‘Hey, I’m still going. That’s what my husband would want. That’s what my dad would want.’ ”
The complete series, published in June 2012:
Part II: Heartache without end
Nearly three years after the series ran, Tim Graham wrote this story: