WESLACO — The remains of 26-year-old Gunner’s Mate 2nd Class Noe Hernandez and the six other U.S. Navy sailors who died in Saturday’s USS Fitzgerald collision have returned home from Japan.
Kristin Michaud, public affairs chief at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, confirmed the sailors arrived there late yesterday afternoon in a somber proceeding that was closed to the media.
In line with military tradition, members of a U.S. Navy ceremonial guard carried the fallen servicemen’s American flag-draped transfer cases — often mistaken for coffins — off an aircraft for the customary solemn movement, she said.
This is also referred to in the U.S. armed forces as a dignified transfer.
Asked when Hernandez’s remains will make it back to his hometown of Weslaco, where family and city officials expect he’ll be buried, Michaud explained that the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System must first complete a forensic identification and autopsy before any further preparations are made.
Once the examinations are completed, Michaud said the remains will be released to a mortuary specialist with the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations for final preparations.
“They will release the remains depending on the family’s wishes, because there’s different variables since it can be based on religious preferences or cultural preferences,” Michaud said before explaining the AFMAO’s function, which includes handling the dignified transfer.
“Our team will prepare the remains for their final resting place, so they will be embalmed, dressed and casketed for return to the family. … How long does that take? It depends on the family and how they work out the funeral arrangements.”
In the meantime, local leaders remain in communication with U.S. Navy casualty officers and Hernandez’s family to help make those plans, as well as a possible ceremony to honor Weslaco’s own.
“We do plan on doing something, but right now we’re working with casualty officers and information is slowly coming in,” Weslaco Mayor David Suarez said.
The mayor explained that the city may plan a procession of some kind when Hernandez returns. The goal, he added, is to celebrate Hernandez’s life in a manner that’s appropriate for the family and community.
“Weslaco is heartbroken by the tragic loss of Navy Gunner’s Mate 2nd Class Noe Hernandez…” Suarez said in a prepared statement at Tuesday evening’s Weslaco City Commission Meeting, where he led attendees in a moment of silence for Hernandez. “Pray for the comfort of his family, especially his high school sweetheart, wife Dora, and young son Leon, his mother Virginia and his whole community who grieve his passing.”
Hernandez was one of seven sailors who died on Saturday after the USS Fitzgerald was struck by a Philippine-flagged merchant vessel, the ACX Crystal, about 56 nautical miles southwest of Yokosuka, Japan. This is where he and his wife and son were stationed.
The impact was such that the Fitzgerald, a naval guided-missile destroyer, sustained “serious damage” on the starboard side as well as flooding in the radio room, machinery space and two berthing compartments, which is where 116 of the nearly 300-member crew were housed. The flooded berthing spaces are also where the seven sailors who died in the collision were found.
Investigations into the collision remain ongoing by the U.S. Coast Guard and several Japanese authorities.
The mayor, former JROTC instructors and Hernandez’s first cousin, Aly Hernandez-Singer, recently recalled the 2009 graduate of Weslaco High as a patriot who was so devoted to his country that he was selfless in his plans to join the U.S. Navy rather than apply for college scholarships in pursuit of a degree.
Described as an earnestly compassionate man of faith, family and country, Hernandez was also remembered for finding resolve and creating peace where there was otherwise conflict.