When California National Guardsman Joseph Brito woke up Saturday, he didn’t plan to stand for 10 hours at the corner of Los Alamitos Boulevard and Katella Avenue waving the American flag.
But when he learned that 30 U.S. troops had been killed that morning in the single deadliest incident for American forces in the Afghanistan War, he didn’t know what else to do.
So he went down to the corner, and he stood. He carried no sign to explain himself. It was just him, the flag and the anguish in his heart.
As a one-man vigil, Staff Sgt. Brito paid his respects to the 22 Navy SEALs and eight soldiers whose helicopter was shot down Saturday—and to the toll that nearly a decade of two wars has taken on thousands of other soldiers and their families.
“I just felt it was right to honor them by standing here with my flag respecting their sacrifice,” said Brito, a staff sergeant in the Guard whose wife served in Iraq and whose brother and sister served in Afghanistan.
Based out of the Los Alamitos Joint Forces Training Base, Brito served in Kosovo and is preparing to deploy again to Afghanistan. “I just felt sorrow for the families of those soldiers, and I felt sorrow within myself. As someone who has served, I know that they wake up each day and they know they may not return to the same bed that night, that they may not survive.
“It just feels right to show them my respect and commemorate their lives,” he added. “I just look at this as a loss of brothers, and it’s tough, very tough.”
As the day wore on, countless cars honked at Brito and many passersby waved flags in return. Some stopped to thank him for his vigil and his own military service. As many as 20 others joined Brito with flags of their own and cardboard signs.
“I just thought I’d be here by myself all day,” said Brito. “I wasn’t expecting this.”
Among those who stopped by was Los Alamitos resident Dean Grose, who said Brito told him: “I had to do something. I couldn’t sit at home and not be able to show people that Americans care. At least, I hope they care; maybe they don’t know this happened.”
Brito’s wife, Isabel Mendoza, joined him after getting off work at 6 p.m.
“He had called me and told me his heart was telling him to come here and wave his flag, and I said, ‘If that is what your heart is telling you to do, then go for it,’ ” said Mendoza. “I came down to join him because I am so sorry for those families. I can imagine what they are going through because I know what it is like for your husband to be gone. And I have a few friends who never came back—or who came back but they can’t use all the parts of their body. I want those families to know that we are here in sympathy.”
The victims of Saturday's helicopter attack included members of SEAL Team 6, the unit behind the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden (although no members of that team were aboard), according to the Los Angeles Times. Seven Afghan commandos and an interpreter were also aboard the NATO Chinook helicopter.