Even for war, this was especially cruel.
Staff Sgt. Eric Alva of the 1st Marine Division had just gotten out of his Humvee in southern Iraq when he stepped on a land mine. Wounded, Alva, 32, could see Navy medical corpsman Brian Alaniz, 28, making his way toward him.
Then another blast. Alaniz, the rescuer, had triggered a separate mine.
The two friends lay in the sand. Both were from Mexican American families with deep roots in Texas. Both had just lost a leg for their country.
They had one more thing in common: strong mothers who would form their own bond in the long hours and polished hallways at National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, where their sons are now recovering.
At a news conference yesterday, Lois Alva and Liz Alaniz held hands as they recounted the dreaded phone calls on March 21, and the bittersweet relief that comes with news that your son is maimed but alive.
In Texas, the two women live 80 miles apart -- Alva in San Antonio and Alaniz in Austin. Now they live just outside their sons' hospital rooms, where each door is taped with a purple heart.
The details of what happened have come in bits and pieces, told by a son to his mother. "When Eric stepped on the land mine . . . he remembered seeing Brian running toward him," Lois Alva said. "He saw Brian on the blast. That moment he thought, if it hadn't been for him, Brian wouldn't have stepped on the mine."
Rear Adm. Donald C. Arthur, commander of National Naval Medical Center, described both men as "American heroes," but Liz Alaniz said her son was doing what came naturally when he ignored warnings and went out to rescue his friend. "Brian is a very loving and kind person," Alaniz said. "And anyone ever need help, he has always been there."
At the news conference, both women appeared tired. In 13 days, Eric Alva has endured six or seven surgeries -- "I lost track," Lois Alva said -- and was scheduled for further amputation today to prepare his right leg for a temporary prosthetic limb.
And yet in their exhaustion, the mothers took comfort in each other, giving squeezes and boosting one another up. "I know that somehow our families were meant to be together," Lois Alva said, looking at Liz Alaniz.
But the road to recovery is just beginning. In addition to losing his right leg, Brian Alaniz lost a right finger and suffered a broken left leg and several other shrapnel injuries to an arm and his groin. Eric Alva took severe shrapnel injuries to a hand and has stitches across his body.
They join a growing number of wounded being transported from the Army's Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany to the Navy hospital in Bethesda. The facility has received 40 casualties since the start of the war in Iraq, with 20 additional injured Marines and sailors expected within the next day.
As Lois Alva and Liz Alaniz talked about their sons, a young Marine fresh from Iraq walked through the lobby of the hospital, wearing khaki pants and a plaid shirt, his right arm wrapped in a white gauze bandage, newly amputated below the elbow.
It was never supposed to be this way. Brian Alaniz enlisted to get an education and see the world. On his way to Kuwait, he landed in Ireland, but saw it from the window of an airplane. After reading this in a postcard, his mom teased, "You joined . . . to go to Ireland, and you stayed there on the tarmac for less than an hour." The Navy medical corpsman is married and stationed at Camp Pendleton in California with the 1st Marine Division.
Eric Fidelis Alva was born to be a Marine, according to his mother. Even his middle name coincides with the Marine slogan "semper fidelis," Latin for "always faithful." Alva, who is single, joined the Marines 12 years ago after the first Persian Gulf War and became a supply chief with the 1st Division based in Twentynine Palms, Calif. A marathon runner, he easily withstood the physical conditions in Kuwait. He shouted words of encouragement to Alaniz, who struggled to keep up with a 10-mile hike as the Marines prepared to enter the war.
Before deploying, Alva had promised his worried mother "that he would come back in one piece," Lois Alva recounted. His first words to her from his hospital bed were not about his own pain, but about his mother's. "Mom, I'm sorry, I broke my promise," he told her.
The Marine sergeant is worried about his men still on the battlefield in Iraq. He keeps asking his mother if anything has been heard from his unit. At least one comrade will soon be close enough to keep tabs on: Late today, Eric Alva and Brian Alaniz were scheduled to be moved to the same hospital room.