Newark, N.J., Jun 14, 2008 (CNA) - Friday can’t come soon enough for Alejandro Pabon. That’s when he’ll be fitted for his new leg prosthetics at Shriners Hospital for Children in Philadelphia — almost 4 months later than anticipated.
Pabon, 16, known as “Alex,” or “Dro” by classmates from St. Mark’s High School in Wilmington, Delaware has Grebes Salgado Syndrome, a type of short-limbed dwarfism that affects less than 1 percent of the population.
Although his arms and hands are completely functional, Pabon typically relies on his prosthetic legs to get around. A surgery last November, called a “Symes” amputation, intended to help improve his mobility and posture, removed part of both Pabon’s feet, leaving him to use a wheelchair until his limbs heal completely.
As a junior, Pabon enrolled at St. Mark’s in 2006 when his father, Hiram, an engineer at AstraZeneca, relocated the family to Delaware from Puerto Rico.
“High school was different in the United States,” Pabon said. “I went from a class of less than 100 to a class with more than 400 students. Plus the lunches here cost a lot more money.”
But he quickly adjusted to St. Mark’s; he was active in the chess club and the game and strategy club. And, said Susan Vavala, Pabon’s guidance counselor at St. Mark’s, he surrounded himself with friends right away.
“His difference isn’t about his disability but it’s his ability to draw people to him wherever he goes,” she said.
“I feel just like everyone else because that’s how my parents raised me,” Pabon said.
Pabon grew up in Guayama, Puerto Rico, with his family, which also includes his 10-year-old sister, Karina. Pabon’s mother, Ivelis, describes her son’s childhood as “just like everyone else’s. He could do what every other kid did — ride bikes, swim, play ball — his activities were just modified to suit him,” she said.
“Don’t forget playing Xbox,” Karina said. “Alex is always playing Xbox.”
When Alex was born, his parents researched his disease at the College of Medicine at the University of Puerto Rico. Their findings eventually led them to seek treatment from a clinic in Puerto Rico which provides free care to children.
“We’ve been working with Shriners [Hospital] since Alex was very young,” Hiram said. “They truly want to provide children with a means to live.”
Faith has also helped the Pabon family. “It’s very important,” Ivelis said. “If you don’t have faith you’re not going anywhere.”
Alex agrees. “Faith helped me get to this point,” he said. “I had my surgery on a Tuesday, left the hospital on a Friday and made it to church on Sunday in my bright yellow casts.”
Still, Pabon is grateful he had the surgery done. It’s going to help him achieve one of his most important goals. “I want to be walking when I get to college,” he said.
This fall, Pabon will attend the University of Delaware, where he will study criminal justice. He hopes to become a lawyer. “He’s great at arguing,” said his mother.
Vavala couldn’t be more proud of Pabon for working hard, keeping his grades up and getting into college.
Earlier this month, Pabon received the Rachael M. Ali award for “quiet leadership, excellence of character and devotion to St. Mark’s High School” at this year’s commencement ceremony. Ali, an assistant principal and charter faculty member of St. Mark’s, died of cancer in 2000.
“To win that award is quite a big deal,” said Vavala.
She’s sad to see him go. “I’ll miss him so much next year. He’s a mentor to everyone. He’s never once tried to make people feel sorry for him…It’s been a joy to know him. He’s an inspiration. He’s my hero.”
Printed with permission from The Dialog, the weekly newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington in Delaware.
Baghdad, Iraq, Jun 14, 2008 (CNA) - Twelve years ago, when our son, Mike, enlisted in the Marines right after his eighteenth birthday, I told him that if he were ever sent into combat, I would find a way to visit him. As you might expect, he laughed and said, “How do you think you’d do that? You can’t just decide to go to a combat zone on your own.” I replied, “I’ll find a way.” He chuckled again.
By the time Mike’s Army unit deployed to Iraq in September, 2006, he had finished his hitch in the Marines, finished his college degree, completed Army OCS and was serving as a platoon leader with an ordnance company. Before my wife Cathy and I said our last farewell to him at Ft. Lewis, I took Mike aside and reminded him of what I had said those long years ago: “I meant what I said, Mike; I’m going to find a way to visit you in Iraq.” Mike smiled and said, “That’s great, Dad, but it’s okay if you don’t make it.” I suspect that he still didn’t take me seriously, and I have to admit that at that moment, I really had no idea how I would accomplish this unlikely task. Visions of Walter Mitty’s adventures floated in my mind, but I had no practical way of turning this dream into a reality.
As I explored the Internet to find ways to get to Iraq, I became discouraged. It turned out that Mike was correct to caution me. All the ways I could find to travel were very dangerous, involved enormous costs (mostly to obtain private security protection), and still provided no assurance that I could even get to Al Taqqadum, the base near Ramadi where Mike was stationed. Then I came across a site called Multi-National Force - Iraq which gave detailed instructions on how to get permission to travel to Iraq as a reporter embedded with a particular unit.
Through the help of a friend with Catholic News Agency, I was able to get credentialed as a reporter, a “war stringer”, and with that accreditation, applied for orders to embed with our son’s unit. Incredibly, I eventually found myself, in mid-October, 2007, on a flight from Denver to Kuwait for three days of processing and then a follow-on military flight to Baghdad International Airport (BIAP). While I was en route to Kuwait, Mike had taken a five-hour convoy to BIAP to meet me at the military side of the airport. I was horrified that he had turned down a helicopter flight to take the more dangerous convoy route. Throughout the entire flight to Kuwait, I prayed repeatedly that my visit to Iraq would not put him in greater danger.
On my third day in Kuwait, I was able to fly out on a C-130 aircraft to BIAP. In order to avoid potential surface-to-air threats, the pilot flew a series of high bank-angle S-turns on approach to the runway. After touchdown and taxi, we deplaned, bussed to a large building and sat in wooden bleachers to await our next transportation. I had no idea what that next step involved and so I simply filed into the bleachers with the dozens of soldiers and Marines who had also traveled on the same flight.
What I also didn’t know was that at the far end of the bleachers, Mike was standing and grinning with his fellow officer, First Lieutenant Jason Vivian, watching as I filed into the bleachers, quietly waiting for me to see him. I searched the room thinking, “Wow, how will he ever know where I am or how to meet me.”
After about 15 seconds, my eyes scanned the room and suddenly I saw him with Lt. Vivian. I felt a surge of joy and moved quickly down the bleacher row to greet him. “Hey Mike, I made it!” I said as I gave him a hug. Mike smiled wryly, but I thought I detected a somewhat perplexed look on his face. Later, he confided to me that for a while, after serving in Iraq for 11months, he simply couldn’t comprehend that I was actually there with him.
For the next six days, Mike and I had the most memorable time together, three days in Baghdad, and three days at Al Taqaddum, meeting many young troopers and soaking in the reality that is Iraq today. For me, now 60 years old, it was as if the Lord had stored up 60 birthday presents for me and gave them to me all at once. While I had been terribly jet-lagged in Kuwait, it seemed as if I was suddenly twenty years old once I reached Iraq.
The six days in Iraq came and went very quickly and soon Mike and I were waiting together for my C-130 back to Kuwait, standing outside the small wooden flight operations building at the Al Taqaddum airfield. I had been overwhelmed by Mike’s kindness to me throughout the visit. As we waited the several hours together, Mike shared some things from the bottom of his heart. With undisguised emotion, he described what it had been like for him to say good-bye to Jen and the kids. It was a tender time for both of us and very hard for me to say good-bye to him.
During our time together in Iraq, I wondered how Mike had been experiencing my visit. I prayed each day that I would not cause him any embarrassment or put him in greater danger by my presence. What I didn’t know at the time was that Mike had been regularly writing his thoughts on a personal blog site during his deployment, and had continued to write even while I was there with him. Recently, he shared with me some of the reflections he wrote on his blog shortly after our sad farewell. With his permission, I share them now with you.
“In case you didn't know, my Dad came out to visit me in Iraq. Most of us in life are a chip in the mosaic, a ripple in a sea of faces. When we walk in the rain, hurrying down the street, all of us get wet. Yet every once in a while, someone walks through the rainstorm and sun shines on their head and they don't get wet. Sometimes the crowd just falls away and we receive a miracle just for us. That's what happened to me.”
“My Dad made me a promise a long time ago when I joined the Marines: Son, if you ever deploy, I will find a way to get to where you are and visit you. Well, I totally forgot about that. Right before I deployed, he reminded me, and I was like, ‘Sure, Dad, that's awesome.... but it’s Okay if you don't make it’.”
“Wow. He did it. Got media credentials, bought his ticket, ballistic armor, everything... I went to Baghdad, picked him up and even went on a convoy with him into the Green Zone which was amazing. Then we flew over Baghdad at night in a helicopter on our way to my current Base. It was surreal sitting there in the dark helicopter, looking out the open back door of the Helo at the lights below and the darkness of the desert farther out. Right next to me, there is Dad, giving me a ‘thumbs-up’.... Honestly, even though I was having a great time, it was strange b/c out here I am not really living. It’s like a roller coaster ride when you are too young and it’s still a bunch of unpleasant jolts and shocks. It lasts forever, and you can't relax, and you feel like you're not even there, but all of a sudden you're done. I'm not scared out here, but for my Dad, yes. In BIAP, when we thought a mortar hit... BOOM!... In a split second I realized my vest and helmet were still in the vehicle too far away and all of a sudden I had my Dad's vest on him and his helmet. Everyone quickly realized it was just EOD blowing some old ammo up outside the wire. Everyone stopped halfway to their gear, but there was my Dad with all his stuff on. I guess I didn't know I loved my Dad that much. But, the kicker was after the BBQs, the war stories, all of a sudden it was time for him to go.”
“The whole time, I was almost kind of numb because it was surreal having him here. This place is the half way place, the wood between worlds. For me, this place has been an existence out of existence, if that makes sense. I live here, and for a pretty long time, but there is no permanence, no attachment. So everything is transient. You want time to go fast because it is overwhelming. So like a marathon, you run to mile 7, then say ok, I'm at 7, now 5 more to twelve, 12 miles etc. So all of a sudden, part of the real world, my Dad, shows up and then I am dizzily sharing my world with him.”
“When it was time for him to go, we waited for his C-130. We said good bye, I gave him a hug and he stood in the long line of troops going back home. It was only when the long line began to walk to the plane, my Dad, a tall distant figure turned around and waved. All of a sudden I felt really sad and really happy and the reality hit me. My Dad came out here just to see me. All the coordination, money, and time, all just to let me know he loved me. I watched until the plane was a little black speck against the red sky of sunset. I think the reality honestly hit right after he was gone. Weird how that works, that sometimes we don't realize our happiness or appreciate our situation until we realize it by its vacancy. My memories are great from this. But somehow it was stark “Army of One” reality out here, and then the brief appearance of someone from home that reminded me I've got people in my life who are pretty awesome. I'm glad I'm so loved. Even if I am 29 and an Army Officer, I think I'm lucky to have a Dad like that....”
As I reflected on Mike’s words, I became aware that it was his birth that allowed me, for the first time, to be called father. It is a gift that God the Father shares with us. Because of this gift we fathers share in the terrifying task of trying to reflect, in some small way, the image of our heavenly Father. I think most of us fathers live life burdened by how we fail in this task. We say, “I won’t be like my father!” and then are horrified to see his failures in us. But every once in a while, usually unawares, we get it right. We actually, by God’s own grace, succeed. In a recent email, Mike described the result. While he was in Iraq, Mike had never mentioned to me that his faith in God had hit rock bottom. The long months, the violence, the heat and dust, the family separations, had all ground him down.
I will close with Mike’s words as an encouragement to all of us fathers. His words are a sign to us that, in spite of all our failures, the Lord can still use us to reach our children. In the email, Mike wrote:
“In seeking to hold to your promise to me, and to make up for your perceived failures, you validated to me not only a father’s love, but something even more. At that time (of the Iraq visit), I was completely jaded with God. When you validated your love to me … you actually validated God's love to me. The operative thought for me was: If this guy … could cross an ocean, go through all this trouble just to see me and show me that he loved me- if a person was capable of this, than certainly God was capable of the same and more.”
Thank you, Mike. And to you, and all fathers “fighting the good fight”, Happy Father’s Day!
Madrid, Spain, Jun 14, 2008 (CNA) - A group of vandals destroyed a statue of St. Anthony of Padua at the parish of San Miguel in Valladolid, which the pastor Father Javier Gomez called “an total attack against religious freedom.”
The latest attack was another in a series of acts of vandalism that began on Corpus Christi. For several days afterwards the glass panel that protects the statue of St. Anthony has been covered in satanic graffiti and inverted crosses, the priest said.
Attacks on the parish subsided in recent days, but they returned this week with the destruction of the statue. The delinquents “threw rocks at the glass protecting the statue,” which is “beloved and venerated by parishioners,” and they threw the statue on the ground and reduced it to rubble.
Father Gomez said he has requested greater security from local officials to “protect the constitutional rights and the religious freedom that was violated that night.”
Police have yet to detain any suspects in the case.
Washington D.C., Jun 14, 2008 (CNA) - Tim Russert, host of NBC News’ “Meet the Press,” collapsed and died yesterday in a Washington newsroom – two short days after he attended the Pope’s General Audience on a family vacation to Italy.
NBC has reported that Russert, originally from Buffalo, NY, had ruptured an artery causing his death at the age of 58.
Russert, known for his intense interviews and as a best-selling author, had just returned from a trip to Italy with his wife and son. According to Politico.com, on Wednesday he attended Pope Benedict’s weekly General Audience in St. Peter’s Square.
This visit wasn’t the first time he had gone out of his way to visit a Pontiff.
The Chicago Tribune called Russert “an observant Catholic” who was invited to meet Pope Benedict during his visit to the U.S. last April. CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer, also from Buffalo, told the Tribune that as they waited for the Holy Father to arrive, “Russert was excitedly clutching his rosary and beaming.”
“This wasn't Tim Russert, the powerful anchor and moderator of 'Meet the Press,' it was just little Timmy from Buffalo.” Blitzer continued, “He looked at me before the pope came in and said, 'Can you believe it, two kids from Buffalo are about to meet the pope?'”
Politico.com also reported that during a graduation address Russert gave last year to students at Washington University in St. Louis, he described meeting John Paul II. “As the Pope approached me, you heard this tough, no-nonsense, hard-hitting moderator of ‘Meet the Press’ begin our conversation by saying, ‘Bless me, Father.’ And he took my arm and said, ‘You are the man called Timothy from NBC.’ I said: ‘I am YOUR GUY. Don’t forget this face.’”
The announcement of Russert’s death was made by NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw. He recalled Russert’s strong work ethic and devotion to his family.
London, England, Jun 14, 2008 (CNA) - A new report reveals that a British teenager died in 2005 after a mifepristone abortion caused abnormal bleeding. She becomes the third known UK resident to die after taking RU-486 and the fourteenth worldwide.
Manon Jones, an 18-year-old student from Caernarfon in Gwynedd, reportedly had decided to have an abortion to avoid a conflict with her boyfriend’s Muslim family.
Jones’ mother Llywela responded to questions about her daughter’s death in a court hearing on Thursday.
“Manon found it very hard to make a decision to terminate the pregnancy," she said, according to Welsh newspapers. "She wanted to keep the child but there were difficult circumstances which she had to consider with her boyfriend’s family and their Muslim religion.”
Mrs. Jones said she traveled to Bristol to be with her daughter after she took the mifepristone pill, also known as RU-486, in June 2005 six weeks into her pregnancy.
“She was scared and I tried to reassure her. It was a very emotional experience for us both to witness her pass her baby and my grandchild into the bedpan," she said.
After the abortion, Manon Jones’ mother said they both went to a hospital where a scan showed no sign of problems. Jones then decided to go on a trip with friends.
“On June 19 I reluctantly packed her suitcase and took her to the train station. I was very worried about her. She said she was cold again and a bit light headed," Mrs. Jones said. “We both held on to each other and the train doors were closing on our hands as I stood on the platform as the train was leaving. It was the last time I saw her alive.”
Mrs. Jones said her daughter returned three days later when her condition worsened. Arriving at a hospital, she was sent to the intensive care unit after seizures and cardiac arrest. Four days after arriving at the hospital, Manon Jones died.
“I stayed with her at the bedside all day and all night and gradually realized that Manon had already left us and was not likely to recover," Jones’ mother told the court.
The mifepristone abortion drug has also caused eight maternal deaths in the U.S., one in Canada, one in Sweden, and one in France.
Sydney, Australia, Jun 14, 2008 (CNA) - On Thursday Cardinal George Pell, the Archbishop of Sydney, launched the Catholic social networking site, Xt3.com, to help connect young people ahead of next month’s World Youth Day. Cardinal Pell said the site, which is similar to popular social sites like Facebook and MySpace, would ensure that young Catholics who cannot travel to Sydney for the event would be able to experience it in real time.
"Whatever my ignorance of this area, it's more than balanced by my recognition of its importance and my determination that the Church and representatives would be active in this area," the cardinal said, according to News.com.au.
Bishop Anthony Fisher, coordinator of World Youth Day, said technology was expected to play an important role in the five-day event. At least 225,000 pilgrims will be able to receive a daily text message from Pope Benedict XVI.
He said Xt3.com would help both Catholics and non-Catholics learn about the faith.
"All sorts of young people will come in and out of this site…they won't necessarily be Catholics or high-octane Catholics," he said. "It may well be a way for communication with all sorts of people."
Bishop Fisher also said there would not be strict censorship on the site.
“We want kids to feel free to talk freely,” he said. “If they want to debate different issues, they'll be able to do that. There wouldn't be any point in stopping that from happening because if we did, they wouldn't keep visiting the site in the future.”
About 100 volunteers from around the world will monitor the site to ensure its operation 24 hours a day.
Jessica Langrell, an 18-year-old events management student, already has a profile on Xt3.com and took part in the site’s trial run.
"It's an easy way for people to get more involved or even just to find out more about it," she said.
"Everyone is so into technology these days - I've got a lot of friends on Facebook and this way, you can find people who've already got that sort of Catholic interest."
Cardinal Pell himself has a profile on the site, a page personally designed by a World Youth Day employee.
"I'm pleased I have been persuaded to come online. Of course, I invite you all to come online and become one of my friends," the cardinal said.