On November 14th, 2003, the doorbell at the Medina house in Middletown, New York, rang, and the resident dogs, Lucky, Chiquita, and Candy erupted in a chorus of howls. One of the twin boys, Ivan, had just returned from Iraq but his brother, Irving, was still in Baghdad. Their mother, Ana, swung the door open to find a somber West Point officer in full uniform and a priest with his hands clasped. The rigid man in the uniform muttered a few words and Ana fell to the ground screaming, “Mi hijo, mi hijo.” My son, my son. Irving Medina, at the age of 22, was dead.

The first time Irving and Ivan’s father, Jorge, came to America he hopped a fence from Mexico, waded through waist-high sewage for miles, and ran through the desert night praying the border patrol wouldn’t catch him. He stayed in the U.S. for a few years picking apples, peaches, and cherries in Washington, and logging the forests of Oregon and California. He sent most of his paycheck back to his wife Ana in Mexico City, where his twin sons and their older sister Jenny slowly grew. Ana dreamt of the day she could come to America, join Jorge, and give her children opportunities that she never had.

Jorge slowly saved enough money to buy the plane tickets for his family. By the time Irving and Ivan were seven years old, the whole family had moved to Goshen, New York. They slowly acclimated to American culture. The Medinas had found their home.

At age eighteen, Jenny, the oldest sibling, joined the U.S. Army Reserves. She needed money for college. America was not at war, and Jorge and Ana were proud to see their daughter give back to the country that gave so much to them. By the time Irving and Ivan were in high school, the Army recruiter was all over them. “Your sister is signed up, when are you going to join her?” The persistent recruiter was at the high school almost every day. “He was a good salesman.” Ivan recalled. In 2001, at the age of 19, with notions of adventure and brotherhood and some monetary incentives, the twins decided to join the Army together. At the last minute Irving backed out and Ivan left for basic training in Kansas. Three months later, as Ivan was training to be a Chaplain’s Assistant, Irving enlisted into the U.S. Army. September 11th, 2001, was only a few weeks away.

By March 2003, Ivan had been in Kuwait for seven months and the imminent war was upon him. As Chaplain’s Assistant, Ivan’s job was to give the last rites to dead or dying soldiers. When asked how many soldiers he had given last rites to, he replied, “After the first couple of dozen I lost count, but I will never forget the first one.” At the start of the northward trek to Baghdad a Humvee driver had fallen asleep at the wheel and crushed a fellow soldier to death.

In May of 2003, as Saddam Hussein fled and President Bush announced, “Mission Accomplished,” Irving Medina was on his way to Baghdad. Irving supplied ammunition to U.S. units by day and wrote letters to his family at night. He would talk to his girlfriend for hours at a time, hang up the phone, and write page after page to his family.

Irving always loved children and passed the hot and difficult days by playing with Iraqi kids and giving them candy. An Iraqi boy, Safi, took to Irving and would follow his unit as they went on patrol. One day as Irving’s unit searched for insurgents in a bank, bombs were lofted through the windows. When the smoke lifted, Safi’s bloodied body lay on the ground. Irving cradled Safi as he took his last breath.

Distraught, depressed, and confused, Irving called home that night. “Why are we doing this?” he said, “Children should never have to live like this.” A few months later an improvised explosive device exploded, flipped Irving’s Humvee, and ejected him from the vehicle. A month later a bomb exploded within a few feet of him and he temporarily lost hearing in one ear.

Back in New York, Ana and Jorge were glued to the television. Every time new U.S. casualties were reported, a chill went through their bodies. Jorge stopped sleeping well, and Ana started smoking more. In the fall of 2003, the Medinas were elated when they received the news of Ivan’s return. After more than a year in Kuwait and Iraq, Ivan’s tired and battered unit came back. During his tour, Ivan sometimes survived off of one bottle of water per day in 110-degree heat. He fought in firefights, and gave last rites to over a hundred dead or dying soldiers. He also searched for his brother. At one point Ivan went to Baghdad specifically to find Irving, but couldn’t. During Ivan’s service in Iraq, the twin brothers spoke to each other only twice.

Their father, Jorge, saw the news clip: “Two soldiers die in Baghdad explosion.” But he knew that Irving wasn’t in Baghdad; he was supposed to have left the day before to go on a mission to Falluja. An odd sense of relief came over him when he convinced himself that it wasn’t his son who had died. Then the doorbell rang and the Medinas’ life changed forever.

The whole family came up from Mexico for the funeral and the town of Goshen came to a halt as Irving Medina’s flag-draped casket slowly rolled through the streets. He was an American hero.

Months later, Jorge’s eyes squint as he speaks of the pain that he feels. In a soft voice he tells me that he has lost his best friend. He used to visit the cemetery every day, but recently it’s been too much. “Keeping busy is the best way to cope.” he says.

After Irving died, Ana was crushed. She has started to drink occasionally and after drinking little more than a beer starts to sob, then scream. Irving’s dog tags are forever around her neck.

Ivan was honorably discharged from the military and has been extremely vocal about his dissent to the war. He has been on numerous television shows, dozens of radio programs and contributed to countless written stories. His eyes swell when he starts to talk about his brother, who was the defender of the family, and the one who always stood up for him. Irving’s girlfriend, Sara, spent weeks locked in her room, crying with no end in sight. Suicidal thoughts came and passed; she has lost her soul mate. “I’ll never find another person like Irving for the rest of my life,” she says.

Jorge Medina proudly flies the American flag outside his home and is grateful for the life that he and his family have had in America. He came from the slums of Mexico City, and now owns a house, a car, and is thinking of opening a Mexican buffet restaurant. Ivan and Jenny will go to college and have, compared to what he has endured, enormous opportunity. But every day he struggles to find hope. He looks to the sky and searches for a reason to keep going, often not able to come up with an answer. This American life, while it has given so much, has taken away his son. Forever.

-- Theo Rigby  

Theo Rigby is a freelance photographer who received his B.F.A. in photography from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.  He is based out of San Francisco and travels often focusing on subjects of social concern.


For an account of Mr. Rigby's arrest while covering events surrounding the Republican National Convention, please click here.  
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