Nine months ago, Air Force Lt. Col. Melchizedek “Kato” Martinez, a career tactical communications officer, was welcomed home from another combat deployment, a constant in the Martinez family. His wife, Gail, along with their four children, had planned a family retreat to their second home, the one place that, no matter what was going on within their family, would center them — Disney World.
With bags packed, the family of six made their way to the Brussels Airport in Zaventem, Belgium, en route to the happiest place on earth, and anxiously waited in line to check-in for their flight to Florida.
That’s when the first bomb detonated.
On the morning of March 22, 2016, 32 victims tragically lost their lives and dozens more were injured during three simultaneous terrorist attacks, two at the Brussels Airport and a third at the Maelbeek Metro Station.
For Martinez and his family, it forever changed the course of their lives.
In the moments after the explosion, time seemed to slow as a badly injured Martinez assessed the state of terror in which he and his family found themselves. According to Martinez, there was only one sound that filled the airport that moment – the blood-curdling screams of his oldest daughter, 18-year-old Kianni.
As his prior-enlisted medic training kicked in, Martinez, who had suffered the brunt of the blast, desperately searched for his family amidst the bodies and gore. When he found his wife and saw the stillness of her body, he knew instantly he had lost his soulmate, his best friend, and everything went dark.
“After first responders removed us from the terminal, I felt myself bleeding out. I knew my body was going into shock, but I was ready to die,” Martinez said. “I didn’t know if my son and two youngest daughters were alive; I genuinely believed they had been vaporized by the blast. I only knew for certain that I had lost my wife, and I had given in to death. I wanted to go quietly into the night because I had failed my wife and my family – I just wanted to let go.”
In the midst of the chaos, first responders began placing victims and casualties next to one another. Placed between her deceased mother and her bleeding father was a severely injured Kianni, who now faced the very real possibility of losing both parents.
“I remember holding both of their hands,” Kianni said. “My father, who had always been so strong and protective, began squeezing my hand less and less, and I felt myself losing him.”
In and out of consciousness, Martinez remembers hearing the frantic pleas of his daughter.
“When I thought I had succumbed to the pain, all I could hear was Kianni screaming ‘don’t you leave me, too,’” a tearful Martinez said. “And it was then that I knew my fight wasn’t over.”
Finding the will
The surviving members of the Martinez family remained separated for hours, each receiving individual treatment for their injuries. Eventually, the children and Martinez were all stabilized as patients in the same Brussels hospital.
Second- and third-degree burns, a fractured heel, shrapnel wounds, a concussion, hearing loss and a left-foot laceration challenged Martinez’s road to physical recovery, but the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and a devastating heartache left him at a crossroads.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t say that this ordeal didn’t make me want to end it all,” Martinez stated. “Gail and I were married for nearly 22 years. She was everything I could have asked for and more in a partner, and without her I struggled to find the will to live. For almost 18 years, Gail had been both mom and dad to our children; she nurtured and raised them in a way I never could and feared I would be unable to.”
As he struggled daily to move forward, Martinez said he stands in awe of his children and the resiliency they display every day.
“We were all in such agonizing pain, physically and emotionally; but I never want my children to forget the pain of that day and the moments after because it will continue to make them stronger,” Martinez said. “We all had to, and continue to be, rebuilt from the inside out.”
The Martinez family was treated at the Brussels Army General Hospital in the first month after the attack then transported back to the United States at the Shriners Hospitals for Children in Galveston, Texas. There, the family began a number of grueling rehabilitative procedures.
“We underwent a series of painful skin-graft surgeries, as well as repairs to our perforated ear drums,” Martinez recounts. “For us, post-attack was simply a phase of recovery; a period of rebuilding.”
The next chapter
Kianni has the longest and most grueling road to physical recovery, but continues to face every setback and meet every personal milestone with an unmatched determination. She considers her 18 years of essential guidance from her mother as vital preparation for clearing the next obstacle in her path — passing the Air Force physical fitness assessment.
“Being an Air Force child meant constant moving, separation from our father, and the challenges of making and then saying goodbye to friends,” said Kianni. “But my constant was home, and that has always been wherever my mom was.”
“She instilled in each of us the importance of an education,” she continued. “She taught us to be strong, and pushed us to excel and to work toward our goals no matter what. I always envisioned earning a college scholarship on my own merit, so I put in the work early and began taking college level courses as soon as I could.”
Kianni remembers times when she was bullied in school for placing such an emphasis on her studies at a young age, but followed her mother’s advice to continue pursuing her goals.
When the day came that Kianni was awarded a full Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps scholarship, the first person she wanted to tell was her mother.
“After my injuries, the first thing I thought about when I was told there was a chance my leg couldn’t be saved was how was I going to continue?” Kianni said. “How was I going to fulfill the promise I made to my mom?”
While considering her options, Kianni received some encouraging news from her growing Air Force family.
“Air Force senior leaders told me to focus solely on my recovery,” Kianni said. “They assured me my scholarship would be waiting for me after I healed and could put more focus on passing my physical requirements.”
On her long road to recovery, Kianni has learned to be more attuned to her body’s needs than ever before.
“You have to have patience with your body and with your recovery,” she said. “I was in a position where I was having back-to-back surgeries, and I had to realize that, while this may be yet another setback, it would only make me stronger.”
As Kianni prepares to become the next Airman in the Martinez family, her next goal seems tailor made for both her intellect and her legacy.
“I want to study computer science with a focus in robotics and artificial intelligence,” Kianni proudly said. “Once I graduate, I am going to join the Air Force and serve as a cyber communications officer.”
Life after loss
Having spent 26 years in service putting his life on the line for his country, Martinez felt certain that there was a distinct possibility he would be the one to go first. Jokingly, Martinez and Gail made a promise to each other early in their marriage that provided both of them comfort when the possibility of losing one another became a reality.
“We always promised each other that we would haunt one another,” Martinez said solemnly. “For the longest time after I lost my wife, I struggled because I thought she broke her promise.”
Hanging in the entryway of the Martinez household is a prominent reminder of his hope: a silent wind chime.
“I wanted that physical manifestation of Gail,” he stated while fighting back tears. “I wanted her to slam doors, knock over tables, ring the chimes — something. I desperately needed to hear or see something from her to know that everything was going to be okay. And when nothing happened, I thought she had broken her promise.”
“But I realized just recently that it wasn’t a promise she could possibly break,” he continued. “I do still see her — in the faces of our children and when I look in the mirror. I am surrounded by photos of our family in the home we created. All of the help and kindness we’ve received as a family is all because of her, from the wonderful people at Building Homes for Heroes to the staff at the Center for the Intrepid, they’ve made me realize how blind I’ve been for the last couple of months.”
Through struggling with the loss of his wife and searching for a sense of normalcy, Martinez has learned the true impact and magnitude of Air Force spouses.
“In all the time Gail and I were married, I never once realized how much she did in order for me to do what I love,” Martinez said. “For the first time, I am now being a parent to four children who have been raised by an incredibly strong woman who did everything.”
“I would deploy or go TDY with no-notice and my wife just accepted that as normal,” he continued. “She never complained or let our situation hinder her from giving everything to our children every day. All of the amazing qualities of my children come from her – I will take no credit for that.”
Plagued with reliving the scenario that changed his life forever, Martinez struggles to this day with acceptance of what happened, and of his newfound role.
“Why am I the one here?” Martinez asked. “Why was it her and not me? She made taking care of our children her mission; despite how lost I am now and might always be without her, it’s mine now… I can’t fail her again.”
“Now, my oldest daughter is trying to learn how to walk again,” he continued. “My son is trying to get back into sports and reclaim the active life he once had. My youngest daughters are finally back in school and participating in extracurricular activities; we are all just trying to live again.”
Thrust into a role foreign to him, Martinez’s world now revolves around his children, while he searches for ways each day to honor his late wife.
“The only way I can truly honor Gail is to fulfill the promise I made to her when we were younger,” he said. “To make sure that these beautiful children continue on the path she paved for them and to be the human beings they were always meant to be — the ones she always saw them as.”
“We are strong,” he continued. “We are resilient, despite all that we have faced, because we are an Air Force family.”