Valor Memorial Honors CBP’s Fallen Heroes
The sun was shining, but the mood was solemn at the Woodrow Wilson Plaza in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday when hundreds of U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel, families, and guests gathered to pay tribute to those who died in the line of duty and the loved ones they left behind.
CBP Acting Commissioner Kevin K. McAleenan, who presided over the Valor Memorial and Wreath Laying Ceremony, held annually to honor the agency’s fallen agents and officers, recognized those who served.
“The men and women who swear an oath to protect our homeland have a passion for what they do. It’s who they are. They go towards danger, trying to right a wrong, protecting others.” said Acting Commissioner McAleenan. “They put their uniforms on every day and kiss their families goodbye, not sure of what the next shift will bring. They know the dangers, and they go on. They move forward for all of us, for our nation.”
Department of Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly also expressed his gratitude for the fallen agents and officers. “CBP is one of the Department’s largest and most complex components. The mission is often dangerous—too often it’s thankless,” said Secretary Kelly. “But their work has never been more important than it is today. The men and women of CBP are America’s frontline. They protect our freedom and security and they defend it, if need be, with their lives.”
Offering his condolences, Secretary Kelly thanked the surviving family members at the ceremony. “On behalf of the Department and our grateful nation, thank you for sharing your loved ones with us. We owe them. We owe you the debt of gratitude we can never ever repay,” he said.
This year, four U.S. Border Patrol agents’ names were added to the CBP Valor Memorial, a monument that lists the names of all of the men and women of CBP and its legacy agencies who gave their lives while serving the country. “Each individual whose name is engraved on CBP’s Valor Memorial personifies heroism,” said Acting Commissioner McAleenan.
Among the four agents honored this year was Border Patrol Agent Javier Vega, Jr., 36, who was killed on August 3, 2014, by two illegal aliens near Santa Monica, Texas. Vega was on a fishing trip with his family when the suspects attempted to rob him. While drawing his weapon to take a law enforcement action, Vega was shot in the chest. His father, who survived, was also seriously wounded in the attack. Both suspects were arrested and charged with capital murder as well as other crimes. The suspects had been previously deported on multiple occasions and allegedly were involved in similar robberies at the direction of a cartel.
Vega entered on duty with the U.S. Border Patrol in February 2008, as a member of the 745th session of the Border Patrol Academy. He was assigned to the Kingsville Station as a canine handler. A veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, Vega served with the U.S. Border Patrol for six years. He is survived by his wife, Andrea; three sons, Javier III, Jiovanni, and Jarod; parents, Javier Sr. and Marie; and brother Jordy. Vega’s canine partner at the time of his death, Rosso-I, a German shepherd, continues to work in the Rio Grande Valley Sector.
Border Patrol Agent José D. Barraza, 29, died on April 18, 2016 in a two-vehicle accident near Sierra Blanca, Texas. At the time of his death, Agent Barraza was driving a government vehicle with his canine partner, Vino, a Belgian Malinois, on board.
Barraza entered on duty in August 2008, as a member of the 800th session of the Border Patrol Academy. He was assigned to the Sierra Blanca Station as a canine handler. Barraza served with the U.S. Border Patrol for seven years and was a member of the Border Patrol Honor Guard, a trained, voluntary, ceremonial team that commemorates the lives of fallen officers. He is survived by his wife, Donna; two sons José Jr. “Joey” and Joshua “Joshy”; mother, Tammy Avent; father, José Villa Barraza Jr.; two sisters, Stephanie Bankston and Catalina Barraza; and brother, Anthony Barraza. Agent Barraza’s canine partner, Vino, also survived and is still working in the U.S. Border Patrol’s Big Bend Sector.
On August 11, 2016, Border Patrol Agent Manuel A. Alvarez, 37, died in a motorcycle accident while on patrol near Casa Grande, Arizona. He was an accomplished runner and had a passion for drawing.
Alvarez entered on duty in July 2003, as a member of the 557th session of the Border Patrol Academy. He was assigned to the Casa Grande Station’s motorcycle unit. Alvarez served with the U.S. Border Patrol for 13 years. He is survived by his wife, Jeanine; daughters, Analysia, and Yaslyne; sons, Julian and Gabriel; his parents, Manuel and Luz Alvarez; and two sisters, Brenda Canez and Nora Aguilar.
Border Patrol Agent David Gomez, 44, suffered a heart attack on November 15, 2016, while on bicycle patrol duty in the rugged terrain near El Paso, Texas. After falling from his bike, the other agents on patrol immediately administered CPR and continued lifesaving efforts until medics arrived. He was transported to a local hospital where he died the following day.
Gomez entered on duty in February 1996, as a member of the 299th session of the Border Patrol Academy. He was assigned to the El Paso Station as a member of the bicycle patrol unit. Gomez served with the U.S. Border Patrol for more than 20 years. He is survived by his wife, Celina; daughters, Daniela and Natalia; son, Jacob; parents, Guillermo and Ofelia Gomez; and brothers, Guillermo Jr., and Daniel.
During his remarks, Acting Commissioner McAleenan also shared that in April, a team of Mexican Marines captured the fourth of five bandits who had murdered Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in December 2010 near Rio Rico, Arizona. “The capture of this suspect was truly an interagency and international effort involving the U.S. Border Patrol and our Air and Marine Operations, the U.S. Marshals Service, and the Mexican government,” he said. “There is one remaining suspect, and I have no doubt he will be brought to justice.”
Some of the highlights of the ceremony included the CBP Honor Guard’s presentation of colors, a ceremonial march led by CBP’s Pipes and Drums, the folding of the flag and the laying of the wreath. As part of the wreath laying ceremony, those officiating placed a single, white rose into the wreath as an expression of remembrance.
Navy veteran Dave Bray sang the national anthem and a new song he composed to honor fallen law enforcement officers and agents entitled, “Last Call.” The ceremony also included the unveiling of the Valor Memorial panel with the new agents’ names inscribed and a roll call where the names of the fallen agents and officers of CBP and its legacy agencies were read.
This year, more than 80 surviving family members attended the event. “We have more family members attending than in any previous year, reflecting the profound significance of this observance,” said Acting Commissioner McAleenan.
One family’s sacrifice spanned two generations. In 1923, during the height of the Prohibition, Customs Inspector James A. Wallen was shot and killed in Del Rio, Texas after confronting a rum-runner who was trying to smuggle illegal liquor across the Texas-Mexico border.
Nearly 61 years later, Inspector Wallen’s grandson, Customs Inspector Richard “Mack” Latham, was also killed in the line of duty. On January 27, 1984, four men who had robbed a jewelry store in Mexico crossed the Del Rio International Bridge in a van. The thieves kidnapped Latham at gunpoint when he discovered the stolen jewelry. Latham was found shot to death the next day near the same spot where his grandfather had died.
On Tuesday, three members of the Wallen-Latham family attended CBP’s Valor Memorial and Wreath Laying Ceremony for the first time. “It made me feel so proud,” said Gene Nixon, Wallen’s granddaughter and Latham’s first cousin, “especially when I walked through the rows of officers and agents who showed me so much respect when I really wanted to show them how much I respected them.”