Christine Lebron still harbors a few bitter thoughts about her son’s exclusion from downtown Waco veterans memorials honoring McLennan County residents killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
After all, the Army named a medical clinic after her son, Javier Antonio Villanueva, at Fort Irwin in Southern California, where the Waco native was trained as a combat medic.
Another name missing from the downtown veterans memorial is that of Jeffrey Paul Shaffer, who grew up in West and who was killed in Iraq in 2006.
While local veterans officials regret the oversights, they say they intend to rectify those omissions and will honor the two fallen McLennan County soldiers at a makeshift Memorial Day observance at 5 p.m. Monday at the memorials at Washington Avenue and University Parks Drive.
While the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the traditional Memorial Day event at the avenue of the flags at the Doris Miller Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Waco, veterans officials are inviting the public to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice by creating a motor caravan down Washington Avenue before turning along University Parks Drive to pass by the Vietnam Memorial and other veterans memorials. Participants in the caravan can then cross the river to drive by the Doris Miller Memorial at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Elm Avenue.
The impromptu parade can be done all day Monday, said Robert Gamboa, a member of Waco Citizens for Waco Vietnam Memorial and a historian of veterans-related issues. Anyone wishing to attend the brief ceremony at 5 p.m. Monday is asked to wear a mask and practice social distancing, Gamboa said.
Lebron said she likely will attend the ceremony, at which veterans officials plan to honor her son and Shaffer and publicly pledge that their names will join two other McLennan County men killed in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.
Also Monday, Mary Duty and the Blue Star Mothers will lay a wreath near the flagpole at Rosemound Cemetery at 10 a.m., and members of the Young Marines will place flags at the graves of veterans buried there. Duty said the public is invited to the Rosemound event, but she also urges those in attendance to adhere to safety practices associated with the pandemic.
Gamboa and other veterans officials say they regret the oversight that left Villanueva and Shaffer off the Iraq memorial. They subsequently discovered the omissions occurred because the Army listed Villanueva as being from Temple and Shaffer from Arkansas, Gamboa said.
“I was real upset because he was the first one from this area to have been killed, and they didn’t even mention him,” Lebron said. “I was like, ‘How could they not?’ He was a medic and he even has a medical clinic named after him at Fort Irwin and he was from here. He grew up here.”
After graduating from La Vega High School, Villanueva worked as an assistant manager at a big-box clothing retailer, assistant manager at a fast-food Mexican restaurant and at a grocery store deli, his mother said.
He joined the Army primarily to provide for his family, and he moved to Temple when he got married and joined the Army, she said.
Lebron said she still is haunted by that 6 a.m. knock on her door by Army representatives.
“You just know what happened if they come knocking at your door,” she said. “I knew he was gone.”
Villaneuva was assigned to the 2nd Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment as a combat medic and died Nov. 24, 2005, in Asad, Iraq. He had sustained fatal injuries the day before when an improvised explosive device detonated near his unit during combat in Hit, Iraq, according to an Army site about the clinic named after him.
Lebron said the things she remembers most about her son, who was 25 when he was killed, are his sense of humor and his love for hanging around listening to music with his cousins. She said he liked to play basketball and ran track at La Vega.
Villanueva’s daughter lives with her mother in Killeen, and they visit regularly, she said.
“He loved his daughter,” Lebron said.
Shaffer, who grew up in West, was 21 when he was killed on Sept. 13, 2006, in Ramadi, Iraq. He was a member of the 2nd Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment when a makeshift bomb exploded near his Bradley fighting vehicle.
According to research by the Army and Gamboa, Shaffer, who enlisted in the Army in February 2005, had been looking forward to serving his country since the terrorists attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He has a daughter who lives in Arkansas.