It’s funny how you often don’t realize the impact someone has on those around him until he’s gone.
This was definitely the case with my brother, Staff Sgt. Alex Viola. He lost his life to an improvised explosive device in Shah Wali Kot, Afghanistan, on Nov. 17, 2013, while serving as a Green Beret in the U.S. Army Special Forces. It was a day that I’ll never forget. The shock of seeing two uniformed soldiers standing at my front door. Their words as they broke the news that he had “succumbed to his wounds.” The uncontrollable pain as this sank in fast and fake at first, then more real as the hours, days and months continued on. As every time I closed my eyes that first night, all I could see was his face. I remember being haunted by the thought that people would hear the announcement of his passing on the news, see a 10-second showing of his picture, and then forget his name 30 seconds later as they moved on with their day. I knew this would happen. I mean, I’d done the same exact thing upon learning of fallen soldiers in the past. And that was not OK.
In my grief, I wanted to do something — anything, to prolong Alex’s memory in the minds of as many people as possible. So I wrote a blog post about him. About growing up with him and the kind of person he was. Allowing people to get to know him in a way that they may never have otherwise. I was floored by the amount of love and support that my family and I received in response to it. And now, three and one-half years later, I’m so grateful to have this opportunity to write about him again. To remind people that these soldiers are so important. Fighting the fight that many of us don’t have the guts or ability to. These are sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, friends. Important people. Every single one.
On Memorial Day, we celebrate soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice, and remember they were people with families who knew and loved them.
On Memorial Day, we spend time with family and friends. We grill out, attend social events, but many times we forget that THESE brave men and women are the people we’re celebrating. Those who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice for us to be able to enjoy this holiday. This is a meaning that is forever etched in my mind. This holiday is for Alex. And for all of his fellow soldiers who deserve to be remembered not only for their deaths, but also for the people who they were (and still are) to the individuals who knew and loved them.
When it came to Alex, I always knew my brother as my brother. It was rare to see him in any other capacity. We got along, we bickered, he helped me out, he annoyed me in every way that a little brother should. And always with a witty quip that only upset me in the fact that I hadn’t come up with it myself. He was a fantastic uncle and our son, Lucas, reveled in his attention. Once he was gone, I began hearing all of these amazing stories about him in other ways. About him in trainings, social situations, relationships, etc. Things that made me say, “I wish I would’ve known this before.” But that was Alex. He was laid-back, hilarious, but had a quiet, steadfast determination that he never spoke of. He never needed a pat on the back or recognition in order to stay the course. I always suspected that he was accomplishing great things, whether in his professional or private lives, but never realized the depth of it until he was gone.
In the weeks following his death, we waited as his funeral approached. And when it arrived, we had few expectations. I think we mostly just wanted to get through that surreal, terrible day. It was held at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Keller. Many attended, although I’d be lying if I said that I had the foresight to actually look around and see how many. I was in my own little tunnel. Now, if you knew my brother at all, this probably didn’t surprise you. His sense of humor was one to be reckoned with. In his last wishes, he’d stated that he wanted Chumbawamba’s Tubthumping to be played at his funeral. Not. Joking. Apparently, his vision was for the casket to be carried ceremoniously into the church as this anthem grandly blasted in the background. Leave it to Alex. He’d succeeded in making us laugh, even in the most dire of circumstances. We tried to make this happen, but while the church didn’t allow it to be played inside the building, they did allow for it to be played outside. And so it was as he left the building. It was clear that many attendees had no idea what was happening as this garish song played in the background of the bagpipers, but we were happy to be able to honor his wishes in a small way. It was like our own little inside joke.
When we joined the funeral procession, it’s fair to say that our minds were blown.
We looked on in total awe: For miles, from Keller to the Bluebonnet Hills Funeral Home in Colleyville, the streets were lined with spectators holding American flags and signs thanking Alex for his service. Cyclists climbed off their bikes and removed their helmets out of respect. People stood at every intersection saluting. It was the most incredible car ride we’ve ever experienced. Everyone was beside themselves with emotion. What affected me the most were the signs. The fact that people who didn’t know us had taken time to create signs to honor Alex. That people had PLANNED to do this for him. And that was when we realized what an absolutely amazing community we live in. Thank you to anyone who participated that day. We are truly grateful.
The years since then have been tough. First birthdays and holidays without him. The numerous times that I began texting him funny pictures of Lucas only to remember that I couldn’t. The second year seemed worse than the first somehow. Like, this was really, really real. And that was the year that my family decided to take action. To help his memory live on in a more concrete way. In his last wishes (along with Chumbawamba), he’d specified that any donations should benefit the Special Operations Warrior Foundation and The Green Beret foundation, two organizations that support fallen and wounded Special Operations soldiers and their families.
The Viola family honors Alex’s memory with an annual SSG Alex Viola Memorial Car Show, benefiting the Special Operations Warrior Foundation and The Green Beret Foundation.
When deciding on how to honor his memory, the choice was easy. If there was one thing Alex loved growing up, it was cars. He and our dad built a 1968 Chevelle for Alex’s first vehicle and he’d loved every minute. Enter The Annual SSG Alex Viola Memorial Car Show, which we created in conjunction with our non-profit organization, The SSG Alex Viola Foundation. We hosted our first annual car show in November 2015 with the help of many. The most special part of the event was that Alex’s Green Beret teammates flew in to act as judges for the show. It was incredible. Our first two car shows raised $20,000 and $25,000 respectively, the entirety of which was split between these two noble organizations. Our third Annual SSG Alex Viola Memorial Car Show will be held on Nov. 11 at the Keller Town Hall and we hope for it to be as, if not more, successful than its predecessors. We truly believe in and want to support these charities while hopefully doing Alex’s memory proud. We welcome any and everyone who wishes to participate, whether it be by entering the show, sponsoring, attending, or simply making a donation. Details for our car show are posted on our foundation’s website at www.ssgalexviola.com.
So, with that, I encourage you to enjoy your Memorial Day, but also to remember the reason we celebrate it. Have fun, be safe and raise a glass to all of our fallen heroes.