Shelter Dog Eases Pain Over Dead Marineby Michael Daly
December 14, 2010
War is when 24-year-old Brooklyn Marine Sgt. Nicholas Aleman is killed in Afghanistan the same day his fiancée gets the flowers he sent for her 23rd birthday.
War is also when the Marine's 28-year-old sister in Kentucky has to tell her kids that money is tight and they must choose between Christmas presents and flying to New York for their uncle's funeral.
War is also when the Marine's 26-year-old sister is eight months pregnant and Skypes with him about the baby's middle name two days before joy is eclipsed by loss.
War is also when that sister's 2-year-old daughter pats her grieving grandmother with a reassuring little hand, saying "It's okay, it's okay."
War is also when that same little girl picks up a phone and begins punching numbers, saying she is calling her uncle the Marine, "my Tio."
And war is when the fiancée and the family take what comfort they can from the little black dog the Marine rescued from a Brooklyn shelter and named Blackjack before volunteering for his third deployment.
"He loved Blackjack," fiancée Elizabeth Rosenthal, whom he called Lizette, said yesterday. "He would go, 'Oh my God, he's so cute. He's my Blackjack.'"
"That was his baby," said the younger of the sisters, Stephanie Lugo.
"It's like a little piece of him," said the older sister, Jennifer Luciano.
The fiancée looked into the elegant little pooch's sad eyes.
"Shelter dog," she said tenderly.
The fiancée wore a necklace her Marine had also sent for her birthday, a gold chain with three hearts symbolizing his love, "yesterday, tomorrow and forever." She had never imagined Dec. 5 would mark not just when she came into the world, but also when he was torn from it.
Rosenthal learned the terrible news the next day from Luciano. The fiancée had at first thought the sister was calling to continue a conversation about the iPods she wanted to get her kids for Christmas.
"She said, 'Oh, sweetie, you didn't finish telling me about the iPods,'" Luciano recalled.
Both sisters are soldiers, as are their husbands. Military pay is such that Luciano's 10-year-old daughter, Bethany, and 8-year-old son, Matthew, had to make a choice.
"I said, 'Okay, guys, you know what happened. I'm going to leave it up to you. Do you want to buy Christmas presents or do you want to be able to go to New York?" Luciano recalled.
The kids chose New York so they could help the heart-torn grown-ups.
"They're going to need it," Bethany said.
Bethany made one request.
"Can I just have $5 so I can buy Tio some flowers?"
Instead of getting iPods, the kids will be at St. Anthony of Padua Church in Greenpoint tomorrow morning for the funeral. Aleman and Lugo were altar servers there.
"We are always raised to know God has a plan," Lugo said.
Aleman always got top grades in school and had astonishingly good penmanship and loved to read on the subway so much he would board with a book and no particular destination. He went into the Marines at 17 and went on two deployments before leaving active service to attend Fordham University. He remained in the reserves and went to Afghanistan two months ago. He was a devoted son, brother and uncle. He and his fiancée were speaking of marriage and kids.
And, in the way of war, he was killed by a suicide bomber. Lugo likes what one friend posted on Facebook: "He's still on duty. Now he's guarding Heaven's gate."
In the way of Nicholas Aleman, he leaves his loved ones with the little black shelter dog he named Blackjack.
"Blackjack marches when he walks," the sister said.
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