WESLACO — Virginia Yolanda Hernandez Lozano clutched an American flag yesterday as she wept for her son, Gunner’s Mate 2nd Class Noe Hernandez, who died at the age of 26 aboard the USS Fitzgerald.
The emotional scene moved many of the 300 mourners to tears during the burial at Weslaco City Cemetery for the U.S. Navy sailor who hailed from the community.
At one point, Lozano’s sobs provided the only sounds heard between each round fired during the 21-gun salute.
This was also during the bugle call while drones flew overhead to capture aerial footage of the ceremony.
Holding it near her cheek, the grieving mother then caressed the flag presented to her by Commanding Officer Christopher Labissiere of the Navy Operational Support Center in Harlingen, while Hernandez’s sister, Mireya Hernandez Alvarez, and widow, Dora Hernandez, consoled Lozano.
Another affectionate display occurred earlier that morning upon the conclusion of the funeral Mass at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Mercedes, where Dora Hernandez, 26, asked her nearly-3-year-old son Leon to touch his father’s casket. She then showed him the Venetian vault at Weslaco City Cemetery that’s designed to keep the casket enclosed.
Lined with concrete and displaying photos of the happy family of three etched into its cultured marble, the vault was special ordered from San Antonio and is meant to prevent moisture exposure in addition to keeping the grave level.
Veterans and children also stood in salute during certain portions of Thursday’s services while attendees attempted to capture the moments on video using mobile devices. With temperatures rising well beyond 90 degrees, unnamed donors provided attendees with bottled water.
Touching sights and gestures such as these helped set the tone for a somber ceremony at the burial site, which was flanked by a 30-by-60-foot American flag the Weslaco Fire Department flew from a ladder that extended about 10 stories high.
Other agencies present were law enforcement authorities who led Thursday’s funeral procession, including the Weslaco, Mercedes, Edinburg and Mission police departments, as well as the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office, Precinct 1 Constable’s Office, Texas Department of Public Safety and U.S. Border Patrol.
Overwhelmed by the turnout, an emotional Dora Hernandez concluded the services at the cemetery by thanking all who’ve shown their support to her husband and the family. This was preceded by applause from attendees in admiration of Hernandez’s service to the country, which has been universally hailed by family, friends and acquaintances as an earnest affinity for the United States.
“Today we saw an amazing display of patriotism and love for our community, and honor for our patriots,” U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, said after offering his condolences to family members, many of whom were wearing T-shirts memorializing Hernandez. “I told them their son is a local hero and if there’s anything we can do to help them. He’ll never be forgotten in our community. He made the ultimate sacrifice for our country, and that sacrifice is not just for him but also for the family. It’s the ultimate price you can pay, and Noe Hernandez paid it.”
Other elected officials who attended were U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, former Congressman Ruben Hinojosa, Pct.1 Hidalgo County Commissioner David Fuentes, and Weslaco and Mercedes mayors David Suarez and Henry Hinojosa, respectively.
Lending their services Thursday morning were the Catholic War Veterans from Weslaco, Warriors United in Arms from Brownsville, the Donna Veterans of Foreign War Post 10802 and Elsa VFW. These groups were in addition to the several Mercedes organizations present, including the Special Forces Association, Sons of American Legion Post 172 and Rams Club scholarship representatives.
It was also Mercedes area veterans, according to Del Angel Funeral Home Director Robert Lugo, who lined the funeral procession’s route with American flags, beginning in the vicinity of North Mile 2 West and stretching to Sacred Heart’s 920 Anaquitas St. location.
Retired and current staff members as well as cadets of the San Benito Naval JROTC were also on-hand.
Each member of these outfits all expressed the need to attend the funeral services in support of Hernandez, whom they referred to as “a fallen brother.”
“As we say goodbye, it’s great to see all this support from the community,” Gonzalez said. “We grieve along with his family when we lose a member of the armed services locally.”
Pallbearers hailed from the Harlingen NOSC and were comprised of staff members and reservists, one of whom served as the bugler who was tasked with performing taps. Conducting the 21-gun salute was the Kingsville Naval Air Station’s rifle team.
Those who traveled the furthest, however, were several of Hernandez’s Fitzgerald shipmates from Japan.
“We’re just happy to be here to support the family,” U.S. Navy Lieutenant John Alcide said at a public viewing on Wednesday evening, noting stoically that he served with Hernandez aboard the Fitzgerald.
Like Alcide, who made the trip from Japan with several other shipmates, many who attended Thursday’s services were also present for Wednesday’s viewing, which was held at San Martin de Porres Catholic Church in Weslaco. Oscar Garcia, 26, was one such individual.
“We used to have this big idea that we were going to transform his tree into a big tree house when we were just kids, but that never happened because we didn’t have enough money for that,” Garcia said of Hernandez, whose homes were separated by a small alley.
“We just had big hopes. He was always a great guy. If you ever needed him he was there for you. We lost touch a little bit in high school because he was doing ROTC and I was off being a not-so-good kid somewhere else.”
Garcia was referring to Hernandez’s membership in the U.S. Army JROTC at Weslaco High School, where Hernandez and his wife graduated in 2009.
“He was really eccentrically happy,” Garcia added about his friend. “He would never bring up a negative vibe to anyone around him. He was full of joy and he spread that to everyone he would meet. And he would always put a smile on people’s faces. That’s what I remember about him the most.”
Now that Hernandez has been laid to rest, attention solely turns to the investigations currently underway by the U.S. Navy, U.S. Coast Guard and several Japanese authorities on the cause and circumstances of a Philippine-flagged container ship striking the Fitzgerald on its starboard side. This was a collision so severe that it punctured the destroyer below its waterline and flooded the berthing spaces where the seven sailors killed were reportedly sleeping.
Hernandez had just re-embarked on the remainder of an eight-month mission at sea nearly a day after leaving Yokosuka, Japan, where he and his family were based.
Prompted by an inkling of concern, Dora Hernandez has said that she and her son took every opportunity to express their love to Hernandez that day, even saying goodbye in a cell phone video she sent him via text message.