As the war in Iraq begins its 16th year, take a moment to ponder the Purple Heart that the army posthumously awarded Sgt. Mario Nelson along with a Bronze Star after his vehicle was struck by a rocket propelled grenade in 2006.
The medal is of the same shape as the hearts of Valentine’s Day, only purple, red mixed with blue, as if great joy had met deep sorrow.
It now sits with his other medal beside the flag that covered his coffin and then was presented at the burial to his wife, with whom he shared a love that was everything love is supposed to be.
Her name is Mecca and in this 12th year without him she told The Daily Beast, “It’s like the love was a love that is hard to find. The love that he had, it wasn’t something that was just there.”
She added, “I still got love for him. He will always be my king… and I am his queen.”
Mecca reported that she and Mario met in downtown Brooklyn when she was 15 and he was 17. He was immediately smitten.
“He tried to kiss me,” Mecca recalled. “I told him, him, ‘No, my mama didn’t raise me like that.’ I said, ‘No, you can shake my hand.’ I made him shake my hand.”
And with that handshake began a friendship in which they helped each other to become their best possible selves.
“When you’re a teenager, you’re maturing,” Mecca told The Daily Beast. “We learned from each other. It was a balance. We balanced out each other.”
They would talk for hours, often chatting on the phone late into the night.
“We was like best friends at first,” Mecca said. “We were real close.”
After two years, when she was 17, they did kiss. She remembers the exact date in 1999.
“It was June 19,” she recalled, then added as if somebody might not believe she could be so precise, “I swear, yes, yes!”
Her bond deepened with this 6-foot-3, 275-pound man-in-the-making nicknamed Big Mo who seemed remarkably strong in every way.
“Physically, mentally, emotionally,” Mecca said.
He had come to America from Haiti with his family when he was 5 and he retained a patriotic passion for his native land.
“He was very proud of his Haitian culture,” Mecca noted.
But he was just as passionate about his adopted land and the opportunity it offered those who were willing to give it their all. He delivered newspapers in the early morning and afterward managed a McDonald’s, all while attending high school. He then became an armored car guard and she visited him on the job.
“They said, ‘So, you’re the famous Mecca he talks about all the time,’” she recalled. “I was blushing. I felt special.”
She learned that he bragged about her to seemingly everybody.
“He’d say, ‘That’s my girl!” she remembered.
He presented her with a promise ring and pledged to marry her.
“When we got older,” she noted.
By 2001, Mario had also signed on with the National Guard. The license-plate holder on his car was rimmed with the colors of the Haitian flag and said “HAITI” on it, but he just as proudly wore the American flag on the shoulder of his uniform.
After the 9/11 attacks, he volunteered to join the recovery effort at Ground Zero. He spent long hours down at the smoldering pile. He was left feeling he had to do more for the country he embraced as his own.
“That’s when he decided to go active duty,” she remembered. “That’s when he decided, ‘I’m going to do this.’”
He sat down with Mecca on a sofa and told her he wanted to enlist in the army as a full-time soldier.
“He asked if it was OK,” she recalled. “I said, ‘Sure. Anything to be with you. I don’t mind.’ That was my honey bunch. I support him just like he supports me.”
He had no sooner answered that question than he asked another.
“That’s when he said, ‘Will you marry me?” she remembered. “Of course I said yes. I was excited!”
The wedding was a big, happy affair with dancing and laughter and too much joy for just one cake.
“We had multiple cakes,” she would later report.
As if all that were not perfect enough, they had a baby girl in 2003. Mario was of course right there with Mecca in the delivery room.
“When I was birthing her, he was breathing with me the whole way through, with the contractions,” she recalled.
Mario and Mecca and now Mia embarked for Friedberg, Germany, where he was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Armored Division.
“The three Musketeers,” Mecca later said. “He’d call us ‘my girls.’”
He would give her jewelry on Valentine’s Day. He was liable all through the year to surprise her with a gift or a gesture to tell her how special she was to him. He would ask her to get him something that was high up on a closet shelf and she would comply only to discover he had a present there for her. He gave her flowers with a card that directed her to reach in his right pocket, where she found a necklace.
Mecca had worked two jobs when she attended school back in New York. She now ran a day-care center while she attended online courses with Monroe College, earning straight-A’s. She would also make sure to have dinner ready when Mario came home at the end of the day. Little Mia would leap up when a distinctive sound announced his return.
“When she heard the keys jingle in the door, she’ll run up with his slippers, ‘Daddy! Daddy! Sit down, daddy! Sit down!” Mecca recalled.
Mario would sit and Mia would go to take off his boots.
“He’d say, ‘Don’t touch those dirty boots,’” Mecca remembered.
Mario would pull them off and Mia would put on the slippers and go to rub his feet.
“What are you doing, little girl?” he would ask.
Then, in January of 2006. Mario deployed with his unit to Iraq. She had known this day would come.
“We were preparing mentally for it,” she would recall. “It was a whole thing of not letting fear take over… I had to deal with it. I couldn’t say, ‘Oh, no, I don’t want you leaving me. I couldn’t say that. I had to support him. That’s what he had decided. He loved being in the military.”
He had been away 10 months and was due back in another two when a chaplain and an officer appeared. They asked if they could come in and she told herself that Mario must have been pulling one of his pranks.
“I laughed,” she would recall. “I said, ‘No, he is outside, ready to come up and surprise me.’ He’s a jokester. Such a worrier, but goofy at the same time. When they said, ‘It’s not a joke,’ I opened the door to look.”
She peered outside. She did not see her Mario.
“I closed the door, and that’s when they told me that he was killed,” she would remember. “I fell on the floor and started beating my head against the door. “
Mia came up to her.
“And she said, ‘Mommy, it’s going to be OK. It’s going to be OK,’” Mecca said. “I swear, that little voice, that’s all I heard for years. ‘Mommy, it’s going to be OK.’”
At the funeral, Mario was posthumously presented with his Bronze Star and Purple Heart. Mecca was given the folded American flag that had covered the coffin of the proud Haitian immigrant who had given his life for his adopted country.
“Because we were a power team together, I felt like I lost part of me,” she recalled. “And I did. I had to find Mecca.”
Her grade fell from A’s to D’s dropping toward F’s and she might not have graduated were it not for the support of Monroe College. She would cry when she saw uniforms. Anger threatened to rule her.
“I hated the world,” she later said. “It was horrible. Nobody knew what I was going through. I just kept praying and prayed to God even though I thought God went away from me.”
The chaplain did what he could.
“I just kept asking what he told me not to ask: why,” she remembered. “I kept asking why.”
She came to an understanding if not an answer.
“I realized God do what He got to do at the end of the day,” she later said.
She sought calm in yoga, but kept roiling with too many emotions. She was taking Mia to a karate class when somebody suggest she herself try martial arts.
Mecca found a way to feel the power and strength she still possessed.
“Physical, emotional, mental,” she said. “It helped me find another part of Mecca.”
Mecca asked her instructor not to match her against tall men. The instructor made sure to do just that and Mecca surprised herself.
“Little me taking down a big guy,” she marveled.
In the meantime, Mia had proven to be a prodigy in music and dance. She learned to play violin, trumpet, guitar, drums and, her favorite, trombone.
“Any instrument I touch,” Mia reported.
At age 11, Mia was asked to perform a tribute to an ancestor at a Brooklyn dancer performance. She ended it with a salute.
“Sergeant Mario Nelson!” she proclaimed.
Mecca went on to open a studio where she taught what she called the YOMA method, combining what her website terms “the fierceness of fighting with the softness of Yoga and Meditation” to help people cope with grief and trauma.
“Helping those that have experienced any sort of trauma including, but not limited to: PTSD, rape, domestic violence, grief, anxiety, depression, self-esteem/self-worth, and stress, just to list a few,” the website says.
But tears still came when she sat with The Daily Beast in her studio and spoke of her Mario. She then heard Mia speak softly to her just as she had on that day in Germany when they she was notified he had been killed.
“Mommy, it’s going to be OK,” Mia said, exactly as before and often since.
Mia is now 14 and a rising star in dance. Mecca is studying for another degree, this one in massage therapy. She had a final exam in orthopedic assessment on Tuesday, the 15th anniversary of a war that continues seemingly without end. She aced it.
The folded flag from her great love’s funeral sat at home along with the Bronze Star and the medal in the shape of a heart the color of greatest love and deepest loss.