Silent Partners Echo the Past, Inspire the Future
Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Myrna Gonzalez, commander of agents at the Border Patrol Academy in Artesia, New Mexico, holds the Silent Partner card of Border Patrol Agent Luis Aguilar. Photo by Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Sabrina Johnston. Graphic by Janice Swan-Jones
Leaders, dignitaries and family members will gather May 12, at the headquarters for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Washington, to remember the 37 CBP members lost in 2021 . The Valor Memorial and Wreath Laying Ceremony honors those who died from each legacy agency by adding their names to CBP’s Valor Memorial Wall and is a tradition that precedes CBP's formation in 2003. About 2,000 miles away, in Artesia, New Mexico, a soon-to-be Border Patrol agent looks at a name already on that wall.
“Border Patrol Agent Luis Aguilar. He is my Silent Partner,” said Melissa Fernandez, a trainee at the Border Patrol Academy, as she looked at the card she has carried since the early days of basic training. The card is part of Border Patrol’s Silent Partner Program, remembering those lost in the line of duty and serving as a constant companion through an agent’s career. “This card – and Agent Aguilar – is with me every day, every step I take.”
Fernandez doesn’t need to look at the card to know the details of Aguilar’s life – and death – as a Border Patrol agent. She memorized the fact he was born Nov. 26, 1976, near her own November birthday. She knows he entered on duty as a Border Patrol agent in July 2002. And she knows of how he died in the Imperial Sand Dunes of southeast California on Jan. 19, 2008, when a smuggler intentionally ran over him. She keeps all these facts in her mind as the approximately 3-inch-by-5-inch card usually sits in her left breast pocket, right over her heart.
“They’re our fallen heroes, and we have to honor them,” she said. “For me, it keeps their memories alive, and it helps keep us united as Border Patrol agents. It’s an honor to carry this card.”
Someone else who doesn’t need to look at the card to remember Aguilar’s life and death is his widow, Erica.
“He was passionate about the Border Patrol. He was excited to get up every morning and go protect the borders and keep America safe,” she said. “Louie did not die in vain; he died doing what he loved. He loved his country and his family, and there’s not one day that goes by that I don’t think of him.”
Erica Aguilar now serves as the executive director of the Border Patrol Foundation, a non-profit designed to honor the memory of fallen Border Patrol agents and provide support and resources – including financial assistance – to the families.
“It’s meant to bridge the gap when there is an agent who falls in the line of duty,” she said, adding the unprecedented losses in the last couple of years increased their work – but they’re glad to help. “This is a labor of love.”
She remembers the day her husband died like it was yesterday … how the Border Patrol vehicle pulled up out in front of the home she and Luis shared with their two children, just 5 and 6 years old at the time … how she just kept shaking her head “no” as officials delivered the grim news of her husband’s death … how she wondered if they would ever be whole again.
“My world crumbled. I didn’t want to hear the news,” Aguilar said. “My daughter remembers me holding her tight and tugging at her like, no, this can’t be! It’s not real! I kept saying, ‘What am I going to do?’”
But she did eventually find strength, thanks in large part to the support she received from the Border Patrol family. She hopes to pass that same strength to other families she meets when she attends the ceremony in downtown Washington, D.C.
“I’ll tell them, ‘You’re going to be ok; you’re going to learn to laugh again, and pay tribute to your loved one, just like I’m paying tribute to Luis’ memory,’” she said. “There’s no better way to honor our heroes and my family.”
Another person who remembers Border Patrol Agent Luis Aguilar is Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Myrna Gonzalez, the person who hands his card – and the cards of nearly 150 other agents who died in the line of duty – to the trainees who come through the Border Patrol Academy. Gonzalez is the commander of agents at the academy and runs the Silent Partner Program. She was Aguilar’s classmate when they both went through the academy nearly 20 years ago and carries fond memories of him.
“Louie was the class clown,” Gonzalez said with a laugh, remembering how he would make jokes during the arduous long runs that were part of their training and how he wore some of the ugliest Christmas sweaters you could imagine. “I’d say, ‘Man, where’d you get that from? That’s awful!’ He was always having a good time.”
When Aguilar proudly showed pictures of his family to his friends, Gonzalez would tease him about how a guy like him ended up with such a beautiful woman as his wife Erica.
“Man, she must not have very good vision, marrying an ugly guy like you!” Gonzalez laughed as she remembered those happier times.
In a more serious tone, Gonzalez talked about why it’s so important to pair new Border Patrol agents with these Silent Partners early in their training, usually within the first week after arriving at the New Mexico training facility, something they’ve done since the inception of the program about a year after Aguilar’s death.
“Since 2009, we have paired Silent Partners with every student,” she said. During the presentation to the students, Gonzalez wears her full dress Honor Guard uniform so they understand the magnitude of what they’re being asked to do. “I’m going to ask them to always keep the memories of our Silent Partners alive.”
She explained that some of the Silent Partners go back about 100 years to the inception of the Border Patrol in the 1920s, and their blood-relation families might not be around anymore. But Gonzalez emphasized they will always be part of the Border Patrol family.
“I tell the students that if not for them talking about these very special people, their memories will fade away. And we’re not going to allow that to happen,” she said. “The future of the patrol – the trainees – need to carry on the legacy of the patrol, which are these partners.”
Sometimes, Gonzalez is joined by the families of the fallen, including Erica Aguilar, who is honored to talk with the trainees.
“What an honor you get to carry the picture of someone in your pocket, reminding you every day why you protect your country, why you took that oath, why (the Border Patrol motto) ‘Honor First’ exists,” Aguilar said. “When a family member presents that trainee with a Silent Partner card, it humanizes that this agent had a family, and they wanted to go home every night, just like the trainees want to go home. It’s a reminder to stay safe, carry out your duties as a Border Patrol agent, and come home safely to your family.”
Gonzalez appreciates and admires those such as Erica Aguilar who agree to talk with the trainees.
“I thought we as Border Patrol agents were pretty brave, until I saw these families,” she said. “They come up in front of the classroom, and they talk about their loved one to these students, strangers, and they tell them about the agent, the family member, who was lost. They talk to them about the children; they talk to them about their hobbies and their favorite things. And they tell the trainees to stay the course, and that they are proud of them for taking this responsibility of guarding our country.”
During her less than half an hour with the trainees during the presentation of the cards, she tries to be impactful with her words.
“I tell them the stories of how agents passed,” Gonzalez said and adds advice to keep the new agents safe when they get to the field, and how even though they might argue with each other, they’ll always be family. “That’s what families do; they fight. But once we go out on duty, all that goes away, and if somebody’s in trouble, we’ll turn it around right away to help that person out, no matter what. I want them to see how much we care about each other and tie that into the Silent Partner Program. This Silent Partner will be with them forever.”
Another friend and classmate of Aguilar is Air Interdiction Agent Barbie Moorhouse, a former Border Patrol agent who is now a pilot flying helicopters with CBP’s Air and Marine Operations in Yuma, Arizona. She’ll never forget how Aguilar helped her make it through that initial Border Patrol agent training nearly 20 years ago.
“Louie is a very memorable person,” said Moorhouse, who also served as a pall bearer at Aguilar’s funeral. “You’re at the academy, and it’s chaos! You’re getting yelled at all the time. Some days you just feel like quitting, but on your time off, you can hang out with someone like Louie, it reminds you that it’s not so bad. He made all the difference in the world.”
Choking back tears, Moorhouse also remembers another classmate, Border Patrol Agent James “Jimmy” Epling, who drowned in the Colorado River near Andrade, California, after saving one migrant from the waters and had gone back in to save more. He was the first Border Patrol agent who died in the line of duty after the formation of the Department of Homeland Security and CBP in 2003.
“I think about how awful it must be for those families, because when their family member left that day, they didn’t know that was going to be the last time they would see them,” she said through tear-filled eyes. “I think how awful it must be to see that Border Patrol vehicle pull up in front of your house and then trying to explain to your young children that their dad’s not coming home.”
Both Moorhouse and Gonzalez will be at CBP headquarters in Washington as part of the Valor Memorial and Wreath Laying Ceremony on May 12, decked out once again in their finest Honor Guard uniforms to honor the memory of the 37 CBP members lost in the line of duty in 2021 … and all who were lost over all the years, just like Luis Aguilar.
“It’s painful being in the Honor Guard. We stand for hours on end in the heat and the elements, and our feet are killing us and our backs hurt,” Gonzalez said. “But none of that means a thing if we can bring that family a minute of peace. That’s why we do it.”
“I’ve been doing this job for 20 years now, and it hurts [emotionally] every time,” Moorhouse said. “But we take care of each other. And when things get tough, we’re here for each other.”
Erica Aguilar encourages Fernandez, who carries her husband’s card, to wake up every day with the same enthusiasm he had for life and the job ahead. “And the moment she stops loving what she does, hang it up, retire and walk away from it!”
For Fernandez, she won’t be part of any elaborate ceremony; she’ll probably be studying and training that day so she can make it through the academy and go back home to Eagle Pass, Texas, to become another member of the Border Patrol protecting her hometown community and the nation. But she will carry Aguilar’s card with her that day and for all of her days as a Border Patrol agent. She said her silent partner serves as almost as a patron saint to her.
“It’s crazy being here,” she said. “I will talk to him and say, ‘Help me out! I really want to succeed!’”
She’s had her own struggles getting through the training, but she’s still on course to graduate in September. And Fernandez knows she’ll make it because of her Silent Partner.
“We honor them, but they also help us out,” she said. “We have a duty to ourselves and those who served to give 100% daily in all we do. I carry his card, but many times, he carries me. He’s my partner. He’s helping me out.”