Chicago Recalls Slain Vet Who Wanted to End Gang Violence

Abner Garcia taught Miguel Areola some lessons that probably saved his life, without ever resorting to lectures or scoldings.

Areola, 19, said when he was a gangbanger, it was Garcia who asked him whether he wanted to treat violence as a career or as an enemy. When Areola got kicked out of his mother's house after a fight, Garcia talked with him until the teenager realized that he wanted to apologize to her for being wrong all along.

"I never seen that in myself: I never knew I had so much potential," Areola said. "At some point, I didn't have anyone showing me love like Abner. I never had that much love in my life."

On Sunday, Areola helped lead a short procession -- a half-mile trek winding along empty concrete lots, strip malls and litter-strewn train tracks -- to the stoplight where Garcia was shot and killed last weekend.

Garcia, a 23-year-old U.S. Army veteran, returned from duty last year and turned his attention to tackling Chicago's relentless violence. He started mentoring at-risk youth through a YMCA program and was studying criminology at the University of Illinois at Chicago to become a police officer.

More than 200 family members, veterans, former gang members, youth advocates, college students and other loved ones gathered Sunday outside Garcia's alma mater, Curie Metropolitan High School. They expressed bitterness that not only had they lost someone special -- but that Garcia's death was not unusual for Chicago.

"The same forces that he was combating every day ultimately were responsible for taking his life," said Carlos Luna, an organizer for Chicago Veterans.

Garcia was shot in the head on Aug. 13 as he drove south in the 5200 block of South Pulaski Road in the West Elsdon neighborhood. At about 1:40 a.m., a van pulled alongside his car and the people inside began flashing gang signs, police said. Someone inside the van opened a door and fired one shot. Garcia died a few hours later at Mount Sinai Hospital.

According to law enforcement sources, Garcia had no known gang affiliation.

"The shooter is someone we'd work with -- he needs our help," said William Schranz, program coordinator for Urban Warriors, the veteran mentorship program Garcia belonged to. "Whoever that was is a person Abner was reaching out to."

And Garcia was particularly good at it, Schranz said, adding that he was confident and young people were drawn by his authenticity.

"He took people in if they needed a place to sleep at night," Luna said, "and he'd feed them in the morning."

Garcia, who lived in the Garfield Ridge neighborhood, joined the military soon after graduating from high school. When he told his mother he had decided to enlist, Elizabeth Juarez told the Tribune that she was relieved he might escape the city's violence. He served at a military base in Anchorage while attending the University of Alaska.

At Garcia's vigil, many veterans pointed out the similarities between their military experience and that of children who are pulled into Chicago gangs or trapped in the ensuing violence.

Both groups form tight bonds. They wear uniforms and share salutes. They face frequent unsupervised boredom. And both veterans and gangbangers suffer from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as hypervigilance, nightmares, impulsive emotions and substance abuse.

"But they're not post-traumatic," Samuel Corona, a Marine Corps veteran, said of the at-risk youth he mentors through Urban Warriors. "There's no distance between their pain and their future."

Still, loved ones said Garcia, who lost an uncle to gun violence in May, knew how to connect with those who were suffering.

Angelica Varela, 23, graduated with Garcia from Curie, where she said he was known for being both humble and charismatic. She said he was a diligent honors student who was never without his inseparable crew.

"Everyone knew him," she said. "He was never alone."

Rod Gonzalez, 24, a lifelong neighbor, said even at a young age Garcia had a positive effect on those around him.

"Imagine at 30 what he could've done," Gonzalez said, pointing out the number and variety of people at Sunday's vigil.

In his honor, the crowd sported camouflage, American flags and black and yellow Batman T-shirts (Garcia was so obsessed with Batman that the entire inside of his car -- down to the stick shift -- was decorated with paraphernalia). Countless strollers rolled along with the procession, led by a group of motorcyclists.

A woman circulating a petition to get an honorary plaque at the intersection where Garcia was shot said the signature count had surpassed 500.

Some of those who signed the petition had never met Garcia, like Starr Flores, 44, who also mentors at-risk youth and takes in teenagers who knock on her window at all times of the night. When a community member like Garcia dies, she said, it can seem hopeless at first.

"It can feel like it all falls apart," she said, "or it can gather us, like we are here now."

mrenault@chicagotribune.com ___

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This article was written by Marion Renault from Chicago Tribune and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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