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In grief, pain, soldier's family bolsters bonds
It was never an intended estrangement. Time just seemed to pass so quickly after Chance Martinez left Utah for Germany.
There, the soldier had fallen in love with a local girl. They married and began to raise a family. He was sent to war. Then he was sent again.
There was talk of visiting Utah, but it never amounted to more than that. And so one year turned into two, two into three, and so on.
Eight years passed. Then, on Sunday afternoon - Mother's Day, as it happened - Martinez finally came home.
Staff Sgt. Virgil Chance Martinez, a member of the Army's 1st Battalion, 7th Field Artillery Regiment, died March 6 during an attack in the Kadhimiyah district of Baghdad, Iraq.
Under a marbled sky at Salt Lake International Airport, the 33-year-old soldier's remains were lifted from a small charter jet and carried to a waiting hearse.
Jill Oliver sank into the arms of her other children as her son's flag-draped casket passed.
"My baby," the mother cried, stumbling forward to follow the hearse as it rolled away. "That's my baby."
But if Oliver's tormented sobs marked the end of a story about how life can pull a family apart, they may also have signaled the beginning of a new story - about how death can bring a family together.
Layer upon layer of relatives gathered Sunday to share deep and long embraces, to tell stories and to share pain. Siblings and cousins and uncles and aunts and grandparents - many prefixed in variations of "ex-," "step-," and "half-," - came together for the sad reunion.
For some, decades had passed.
"Is this Marilyn?" Oliver cried upon seeing her childhood friend and cousin, Marilyn McNeely. "No you're not Marilyn. This can't be you!"
Twenty-five years had gone by since the two had last embraced. In one short moment of laughter and tears, those years meant nothing.
"I love you," Oliver said. "Oh honey, honey, I love you."
In the middle of it all were Martinez's wife and kids - all once virtual strangers to their Utah relatives. Marion Martinez, appearing overwhelmed with grief, quietly exchanged hugs and whispers of comfort with her newfound family.
It's unclear how much Martinez's youngest children - Isabella is 4, Tonyo is 2 - understood about the purpose of the gathering that welcomed them to Utah. But lifted time and again into the arms of strangers, the toddlers' widening smiles seemed to indicate they understood they were among family.
For Chance Martinez's father and namesake, Virgil A. Martinez, the glory of being surrounded by his grandchildren momentarily overtook his sorrow at losing his son.
"Look at these children," Virgil Martinez laughed, taking Isabella's tiny hands in his own. "Would you all look at these beautiful children?"
Chance Martinez will be buried on Tuesday at Utah Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Riverton. A few days later, Marion Martinez and her children will board an airplane headed back to Germany.
Virgil Martinez said he still worries that life may once again separate him from his son's family.
"There will be distance," he said. "But there will never be any question about our love."