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An Old Wound, A Healing Mission

LIZ BALMASEDA

Published Monday, October 30, 2000, in the Miami Herald 

An old wound, a healing mission Nearly four decades ago, an exile-piloted B-26 bomber mysteriously vanished during the Bay of Pigs invasion. Miles from its bellicose mission, it crashed on a mountain in northern Nicaragua, where impoverished residents would later discover the debris.

That crash killed two Miami-based, CIA-trained pilots, Crispín García and Juan de Mata González, members of a 54-pilot force that lent air support to exile brigadiers during the April 1961 invasion. They were among 18 pilots killed during the ill-fated, three-day fight.

But while many of their surviving exiled compatriots cling to the painful memory of that invasion, their fatal war path has led to an entirely different kind of mission, one of peace, one that continues to bless that northern mountain.

Now, as Miami exiles await the arrival of the two pilots' remains, to be buried here on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, there is a larger story to tell than that of a failed invasion.

PILOT'S DAUGHTER

We have Janet Ray Weininger, daughter of an American pilot shot down during the Bay of Pigs invasion, to thank for this.

Years after she led a relentless campaign to recover her father's body, which had been put on display in Cuba by Fidel Castro, Weininger turned her efforts to bringing home the two pilots buried in Nicaragua's Jinotega province.

It was the Alabama-raised Weininger who lobbied the CIA, which had ditched the case, leaving the dead on the mountain. Along with the son of one of the dead pilots, Weininger trekked into the woods of Jinotega and located the crash site near the town of San José de Bocay.

Finally, two years ago, the CIA gave in to her pressure, dispatching a search mission to the mountain, then flying the remains to a U.S. Army lab in Hawaii for positive identification.

MONTH AT SITE 

In the meantime, a miracle occurred on the mountain. Weininger fell in love with the people. She spent a month at the site, working with the U.S. Army team, Nicaraguan army officials and former contra rebels.

She realized she had landed in a desperate place, a remote, poverty-choked corner of Central America. And she knew she had not landed there by accident.

On that mountain, she began to make sense of her decades of pain. She decided it would be a wasted opportunity to hold on to the scars of her childhood.

She founded an organization called Wings of Valor and set up a website -- www.wingsofvalor.org -- to serve the population upon which she had stumbled. Weininger travels there by rural bus or pickup truck, toting supplies, medicine, wheelchairs, even Beanie Babies, to the families.

POSITIVE TURN 

"I've never forgotten the Cuban cause. None of us who endured that period escaped the loss of Cuba's freedom without scars. But what you do with your scars depends on you. I chose to turn mine into something positive,'' said Weininger, who has organized teams of Nicaragua-bound volunteers to provide everything from hurricane relief to community-building projects such as scholastic, sports and music programs.

But as she plans the Veterans Day memorial, Weininger is resisting pressure from some in the exile community to politicize the service at St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church and the burials at Dade South Memorial Park. She envisions a dignified military service untarnished by political speeches.

Burying the dead means honoring memories and missions, she believes. But it doesn't mean clinging to the past or losing the spirit of a cause, she insists.

"It is time to allow the phoenix to rise out of the ashes,'' she says. "We cannot continue to live in the ashes.''

On a distant mountain, a population is comforted by her words and her deeds.

  

 

Wings of Valor, Inc.
P.O. Box 56-2801
Miami, Florida 33256-2801
Phone: (305) 255-8892 Fax: (305) 232-9933

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