A Mother’s Love

Authors: Kristi Stolzenberg , Maria Gonzales , Pamela Wanga

In kindergarten, out of all the books and flashy trinkets at the school book fair, I used my money to purchase Love You Forever by Robert Munsch. If I had to guess, I was likely drawn to the toddler sitting in the middle of pure chaos of his own creation — thinking it was probably a hilarious book. 

If you’ve ever read the book, you know that — while it has glimmers of humor that I now find relatable as a parent — the book tugs at your heartstrings more than it tickles your funny bone. It is a testament to the unconditional love a mother has for her child. Through each stage — sleepless nights with a newborn, mischievous toddler antics, rebellious teen years, and the day her baby, fully grown near the end of the story, leaves home — the mother sings, “I’ll love you forever, like you for always, as long as I’m living, my baby you’ll be.” 

A mother’s love is unshakable and unending — even if a mother has to endure the pain of losing her child, the love remains. The love is unique in that it isn’t always obviously love — sometimes it manifests as lying awake worrying about your child, things you said, or things you didn’t say. Sometimes it’s pride, hanging an achievement on the refrigerator, telling and retelling favorite memories, or — for the mothers in our TAPS Family — mailing your son’s or daughter’s photos and stories to TAPS in hopes they will appear in print because no passage of time will lessen the love, ease the grief, or diminish the pride you still hold for them. They will, to paraphrase the story’s refrain, always be your baby.  

Over the last several months, I’ve had the privilege of getting to know two surviving mothers in the TAPS Family, Maria Gonzales and Pamela Wanga. These mothers — though they may have never met face to face — share the heartbreaking goal of ensuring the world remembers their sons, MSgt Martin L. Gonzales, U.S. Air Force, and CWO2 Victor J. O. Wanga, U.S. Marine Corps.


Maria and Martin

Maria’s son, Martin, was born on July 4, 1974, which made his choice to serve in the U.S. military seem almost written in the stars. Maria’s American hero was born on Independence Day and died on October 5, 2013, in a plane crash near the Colombia-Panama border while conducting monitoring operations in support of Operation Martillo, a campaign targeting illicit trafficking under U.S. Southern Command. 

Maria Gonzales lays flowers at war memorial at Miami Airport

Martin L. Gonzales Military photo

Maria shared that Martin enlisted in the U.S. Air Force on December 29, 1992, at the age of 18, later entering the Air Force Reserves in 1997, and mobilizing following 9/11 in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. In October of 2006, Martin joined the Host Nation Rider Program as a Host Nation Rider Escort, which frequently called him aboard aircraft tasked with monitoring drug smugglers throughout SOUTHCOM. She proudly relayed as confidently as any U.S. Airman that Martin logged over 200 sorties and 2,000 flying hours in support of the counternarcotics mission that would eventually take his life. He was a critical part of SOUTHCOM’s confiscation of 384 metric tons of illegal drugs, totaling roughly $46.9 billion. 

Martin left behind his loving wife, two young children, and a mother who never stopped being proud of his military service or the many milestones in his young life that led him there. I suspect her July 4th celebrations took on new meaning in 1974 when Martin was born, changing again on the first Independence Day he wore the U.S. Air Force uniform, and every Independence Day since his death fills her with immense pride and an annual surge of grief for the American hero she lost. 

Martin’s final mission, though critical, was quiet, likely unknown to many of us in the United States. The few local stories available on the mishap and his life share the same heartbreaking statement from his widow and the minimal details available immediately after his death. The last mention of MSgt Martin L. Gonzales in the news was October 22, 2013, when his remains were returned to his family with full military honors. Though the nation is no longer reporting on the Gonzales family’s loss, Martin’s life, or the legacy he left behind 10 years later, Maria hasn’t gone a day without thinking of him. She has never stopped reminding all who will listen that he was a hero and a loving son. And, although she can’t wrap him up in her arms to tell him face-to-face, she will always be proud of him.


Pamela and Victor

Victor wasn’t born in the United States — the country he would eventually call home and raise his right hand to promise to defend. He was born on May 1, 1985, in Nairobi, Kenya. Pamela eloquently shares that her healthy baby boy came into this world with a purpose in life. 1988 brought the Wanga family to the U.S. — Minnesota, to be specific. The years flew by, as they tend to do, and before Pamela knew it, Vic — as she affectionately calls him — and his twin brother graduated from high school in 2003. By May 2004, Vic was on his way to Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego. 


Pamela Wanga holding son's peaked military cap

Victor J. O. Wanga Military photo


Vic flourished as a Marine — completing administrative courses, climbing in rank, and seeing the world. It was on the other side of the world, in Okinawa, Japan, that Vic “met and married the love of his life, Alexandra,” in an October 10, 2006, ceremony in Japan. With immense pride, Pamela recalls all of Vic’s accomplishments, appointments, and home bases during the time he proudly served in the Corps. From California to Japan, the Pentagon to eastern North Carolina, he continued to excel and advance while she proudly watched from afar. 

As I read the notes Pamela sent me, my smile grew wider the further down the page I read. She shared Vic’s military accomplishments in chronological order with crispness and precision, but the small anecdotes — emotional memories in mint condition seemingly pulled right off a shelf, exactly where she’d left them — truly illustrated the bond between Pamela and Vic. Flashbacks to “You Saved Me” and “Peace in the World,” the soundtrack for the drive to the airport where Pamela would see Vic off to Japan and the way Vic held his son in his hands before he deployed to Iraq — these are all seemingly small moments that turned out to be anything but; they are hers to keep even now. 

In his final assignment, stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point in North Carolina, Vic, CWO2 Victor Joseph Oloo Wanga by that time, led a team as a branch head. The incredible career that Pamela shared with me abruptly stops, though, and she simply asks, “Son, where would you be now and how far would you have climbed up your career ladder had you stayed with us?” Vic died on November 12, 2018, in New Bern, North Carolina, just a few miles down the road from the air station. In November 2023, Pamela reflected on the fifth anniversary of Vic’s homegoing: 

“Your sudden and unexpected departure in 2018 punctured our hearts, raptured our spirits, demolished our hopes, rambled our pillar of solace, and shattered our very existence. 

“In the midst of pain and confusion, we have lifted our hearts to the creator, God, who gave you to us for a brief 33 years and thanked Him in appreciation for the fondest memories and the legacy you left behind…which ushered us through the toughest of days and nights, and, as much as your absence hurts, we bear the pride of being closely associated with a personable, charismatic, outgoing, skilled, confident, highly motivated, knowledgeable, yet humble and selfless warrior and coach, the memory of whose legacy will remain unforgettably alive. We love and miss you, son.”


A Mother’s Grief

Mothers pour their whole hearts into their children — they answer the sleepless newborn phase, the mischievous toddler years, and the rebellious teenage streak with complete and unconditional love, knowing full well that one day they will hold their children for the last time. They will pack up what their mothers taught them and take on the world; they’ll meet challenges and successes, friends and soulmates, passions and their place in history. 

Mothers eventually stand back and share their children with the world, and that’s just what Maria and Pamela did — what mothers across the TAPS Family did. They shared their sons with us, with the U.S. Military they proudly served, with their Battle Buddies, friends, their spouses, and children. What a bittersweet role it is to both love them first, and, upon their deaths, share them in grief.

Mothers share at National Seminar

Online Healing Sessions for Women

TAPS provides a space for moms to process grief and heal alongside other moms in our recurring Moms Mentoring Moms or Moms Mentoring Moms — New to Grief Online Group chat. Mark your calendar and log on for a healing session. In addition to these groups for moms, we host many more Online Groups based on type of loss, relationship to the fallen, and peer group. Browse the list to find the best fit for your healing. 

Kristi Stolzenberg is TAPS Magazine and Special Projects Editor.

Maria Gonzales is the surviving mother of MSgt Martin L. Gonzales, U.S. Air Force.

Pamela Wanga is the surviving mother of CWO2 Victor J. O. Wanga, U.S. Marine Corps.

Photos: Maria Gonzales and Pamela Wanga