World War II veteran receives medals earned 65 years earlier
Feb. 16, 2011 at 4:05 p.m.
Updated Feb. 15, 2011 at 8:16 p.m.
GOLIAD - In December, Esmel Gonzalez Rubio lay in his bed and, for the first time, felt the weight of the medals he'd earned in World War II.
His wife, Neurania Rubio, tearfully and proudly recalled laying the medals on the veteran's navy blue sweatshirt 65 years after he was discharged from the Army.
"I teased him and said, 'I thought I had married just a common soldier,'" his wife of 62 years, said. "He was really happy."
The Army veteran, who enlisted at 17, didn't talk much about his two-and-a-half years in the service. He was too busy running several businesses, including a plumbing shop, cafe, hotel and an internationally successful restaurant.
And, when the soldier came back to Goliad, his attention was focused on courting an old schoolmate.
"He was five years older than I was, but when he came from the war, we fell in love," Neurania recalled with clarity. "He kept coming back and begging me to marry him, begging me to marry him, and finally I said 'yes.'"
When they met, Neurania was working at the drug store's fountain. Esmel, better known as E.G., would later buy the fountain's antique tiled bar and put it in the couple's La Bahia Restaurant.
There the couple worked for 42 years, serving locals, Mexican dignitaries, politicians and even Lady Bird Johnson. Along the way, they also found time to raise three children.
"He was so busy, he was always working," Neurania said. "Sometimes we'd just wave at each other."
But the couple's hard work ethic is part of what made them click.
"I just knew he was the perfect man because he was a hard working man," Neurania said.
E.G. cultivated his wife's desire to work and was attentive to the point of constantly surprising Neurania.
On a cold January day in the couple's Goliad home, Neurania remembered times she'd offhandedly mentioned something she liked and her husband would later buy it for her.
"We're not rich people or anything like that, but I just want people to understand that working and being a good person can accomplish a lot of things for you," she said.
In the spirit of honoring her husband's hard work, Neurania, with the help of other members of the family, planned a surprise ceremony for E.G., at which they would present him with medals he never received from the military.
Since E.G. rarely spoke about the war, the family spent a year tracking down records and petitioning Veterans Affairs for the medals. They even got U.S. Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, who E.G. had met a few years earlier, on board. The congressman scheduled a flight to Texas for late January and was set to present the medals to the veteran at his old La Bahia Restaurant, the one they had to close five years ago when Neurania had a heart attack.
But Hinojosa had to cancel the trip because of a winter storm. The family is working to reschedule the ceremony.
After the heart attack, E.G.'s health also deteriorated, and he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. The couple, who had been on the move their whole lives, slowed down and enjoyed time with each other.
"I told him, 'When I can't take care of you, we're both going to the nursing home. I'll go with you,'" Neurania said. "He knew I wasn't going to let him go by himself."
When her husband's health started taking a turn for the worse, Neurania still cared for him in their home and in November took the passionate American citizen, confined to a wheelchair, to vote one last time.
In those days, E.G. opened up more about the war than he had his whole life.
His son Ramiro recalled a December afternoon in which his father stood up from a recliner and noticed his frail legs.
"Tears started rolling," Ramiro said. "When he saw them, he said, "Now my legs look like the people we saved in the concentration camp.' And then he just sat there for a little while."
E.G. died with his family by his side on Jan. 19 at the age of 85.
"I just told him, 'Go to your God. We're nothing in this world . You go up there, you follow him, don't look back,'" Neurania tearfully managed to remember. "I said, 'Someday, we'll be together again.'"
The veteran was just a week shy of the surprise ceremony at which he would have formally received the medals from his service in World War II.
Of course, a month before he died, the proud American was able to lay with the recognition of his service displayed on his chest.
"I looked outside and the flags were flying, and his picture was under the window," Neurania remembered. "I noticed, it seemed like the flag was always following him when he was sick."