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Gold Star mom keeps son’s memory alive

Pat Merville, head of the local Gold Star Mothers group, holds a flag given to her at the funeral of her son, U.S. Army SPC Christopher Merville, who was killed by a sniper in Iraq in 2004. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

EDGEWOOD – She didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.

That’s one of the things Pat Merville remembers when she thinks of her son Christopher’s service to his country in Iraq.

The Army specialist was given leave before his unit left South Korea for the Middle East in the summer of 2004. Only Christopher Merville didn’t come back to the states.

His mind was on the future. He was engaged to a woman from the Philippines he’d met while serving as a peacekeeper in Korea and wanted to spend time with his fiancee before leaving for what would be about a yearlong deployment in Iraq.

He sent his fiancee, Rena Beth Louise, back to Manila before his unit deployed.

It had been 17 months since Pat Merville had seen her son, who deployed to Iraq in July 2004. They talked on the phone when he was in Korea, and again when Christopher was in the Middle East.

He was happy with military life, she said, although he was thinking about transferring to another specialty.

Pat Merville looks at photos of her son, U.S. Army SPC Christopher Merville, who was killed in Iraq in 2004. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

She said her son was interested in languages, having spent a year as an exchange student in Germany. She said her son worked on learning Korean and Tagalog – Rena Beth Louise’s native language – when he was stationed in Korea.

Pat Merville also said Christopher was interested in deepening his Catholic faith.

His service to his country was a way of honoring his father, Joseph, a Vietnam veteran who died in April 2001 with a heart ailment.

Several months later came the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

He went to basic training and advanced individual training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

“He wanted to avenge his country,” Pat Merville said.

She tried to send him birthday gifts when he turned 26 in Kuwait in August 2004, but the Army wouldn’t deliver them because he was only temporarily stationed there.

She looked forward to the day when she’d see her oldest son again.

But it wasn’t meant to be.

The Eldorado High grad who had attended the University of New Mexico was a squad leader in the 2nd Infantry Division on patrol in Baghdad when he was killed by a sniper on Oct. 12, 2004.

A display case honoring U.S. Army SPC Christopher Merville is on display at the home of his mother, Pat Merville.

“I think it was because he was the leader that he was targeted by the sniper,” said his mother, who will be in attendance at today’s Memorial Day observance at the New Mexico Veterans Memorial in Albuquerque.

It’s one way to remember her son.

“When they do the gun salute, when they do the song,” she said, “we all tear up.”

An ominous message

The news of her son’s death came at what had been a joyous time for Pat Merville.

Her sister, Phyllis Villave rde, had been in town for a week-and-a-half celebrating her 50th birthday. The sisters spent time at the Balloon Fiesta.

“I had dropped her off at the train station,” Pat Merville said.

She was planning on doing some shopping. She called her younger son, Matt, to ask him what he wanted her to pick up for dinner.

He told her she needed to come home.

The casualty assistance officers from the National Guard were there because Albuquerque doesn’t have an Army base. They were parked by the side of the road when she drove up.

“I hesitated about going in,” Pat Merville said. “My poor son had been sitting with them for several hours.”

He was unable to call her.

“It was hard,” she said. “The worst thing was trying to go back to work.”

She was working at PNM at the time. She said then-CEO Jeff Sterba got her in touch with then-U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson, who helped the family with, among other things, getting a visa for Christopher Merville’s fiancee so she could attend the funeral.

Wilson also attended the funeral.

Pat Merville, head of the local Gold Star Mothers group, holds a photo of her son, U.S. Army SPC Christopher Merville, who was killed by a sniper in Iraq in 2004. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Merville credits her involvement with the Rio Grande Chapter of Blue Star Mothers, an organization for parents with children serving in the military, and Gold Star Mothers, an organization for mothers whose children were killed in while in the service of their country, with helping her with her grief, and helping her keep her son’s memory alive.

“When my sister was here and we went to Balloon Fiesta, Jan Downs and Carolyn Donnell were there at Balloon Fiesta with a booth there, trying to inform people that they were forming a local chapter of Blue Star Mothers,” she said.

She went to a meeting the Saturday after Christopher was killed.

“I joined that group and have been a member of that group ever since,” Pat Merville said. “It was through them that they put me in touch with the Gold Star Mothers.”

At that time, there were only Gold Star Mothers from the Vietnam era.

“It’s not just an honorary organization, but a veteran services organization,” she said. “They go to the VA hospitals to help. One of the reasons I stayed with the Blue Star Mothers is to help with the care packaging. Our group (the Gold Star Mothers) is very small. There are only 17. That’s for the whole state.”

She is aware of other mothers in the state who have lost children who were serving in the military.

“Not everybody is into volunteer work,” Pat Merville said. “How they deal with their grief is different.”

Bonding with people such as fellow Gold Star member Becky Christmas helped her with her grief.

Becky Christmas’ son Todd, an Army captain, was killed in a helicopter crash at Fort Hood in Texas shortly after Christopher Merville died in Iraq.

Pat Merville also finds other ways to keep the memory of her son alive. Photos and other memorabilia are on display at her home from Christopher’s time in the military.

“I still miss him,” she said. “I knew the potential. I knew what he could have done after he did his service. He could have contributed a lot. I miss him bad.”

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