Michael's Dispatches

A Piece Of Cake

A story of Combat, Cakes, and Love

Tacoma, Washington

They met in Queens at a bakery where they both worked. Walt had arrived from Argentina, Jessica by way of Eugene, Oregon, but affection followed confection when they worked side by side at the Piece of Cake Bakery. Walt was eager to see more of America, so he and Jessica headed for the West Coast, eventually finding work in another bakery in Portland, Oregon.

Marriage followed love, and two children followed marriage. But the world intruded and Walt landed fighting in Iraq. He enlisted in the Army in 2000, and became a sniper. The same acute vision that ensured his marksmanship also fueled his growing passion for photography. During the eight months he fought in Iraq, he carried his Leica camera in his backpack, shooting black and whites of the daily grind of war.

Walt saw much intense combat, but the first time he got hit really hard in his body was by a homicide car bomber whose dismembered parts landed atop the Stryker. Walt was knocked unconscious. There was a big fight. Bombs, jets, dead people everywhere, and Walt was taken to the hospital with serious burns to his back and some loss of hearing, but he soon returned to duty.

Months of fighting passed, until Walt was wounded again by an IED against the same Stryker that saved his life with the earlier car bomb. That he didn’t die in either blast was perhaps due to the incredible engineering put into the Stryker, though Sergeant Mark Bush, who was there, insists their lives were saved by the angels of Adam Plumendore and Ben Morton, two platoon members who had been previously killed in battle.

While Walt lay in the hospital the second time, with bomb fragments in his left eye, the first thing he said to his commander LTC Erik Kurilla was that he was worried about losing the chance to become a US citizen. Although his citizenship ceremony in Baghdad was only a few days away, Walt wouldn’t make it. After this latest IED nearly blew him asunder, he’d be on a fast plane home before then. Problem was home was not officially home, and his green card had expired while he was off to war. I joked with Walt that he was lucky INS didn’t raid his place in Iraq and drag him away. (INS would have had to win a firefight against his platoon and then the entire battalion before that would happen.)

Walt as Baker

Back home, he was still worried; being a twice-wounded war veteran might not carry cache with bureaucrats, and he knew it. I told the intrepid AP correspondent Tony Castaneda about Walt, secretly hoping he would write about the situation. He did and Walt’s plight made newspapers all over the country. [AP Article] [Photo Slideshow]

As luck would have it, LTC Kurilla was shot three times, landing him at a hospital close to Walt. From his hospital bed, Walt’s commander got to work making sure that one of his best soldiers became an official American, and he helped pull him aboard. Walt’s now an American who hasn’t wasted a moment in bringing his dreams alive.

Walt’s wife Jessica was born an American citizen, so she didn’t have that hurdle, but Mrs. Gaya wanted to put her baking skills to the task of building a life with Walt and their children.

I was fortunate to be on hand for the Grand Opening of the Corina Bakery on 510 6th Avenue, in Tacoma, Washington. The bakery is named after their beautiful 4-year-old daughter for whom bets are on that she’ll be running the place by the time she graduates from high school.

I visited the Corina Bakery twice during the first week. Imagine my seeing Walt wearing an apron and carrying trays of muffins when I was used to seeing my friend silently aiming a sniper rifle or walking on a smoking battlefield.

One day when I was with his unit in Mosul, Sergeant Mesa (from Guam) was talking to people in Arabic. Mesa was amazing; he’d studied Arabic for the trip to Iraq. While Mesa was intermittently speaking Arabic, telling people to open their trunks and so forth, I got the distinct feeling that someone was about to shoot us. Walt must have gotten the same feeling from the same direction. He came up and took a hidden position and began scanning the distance with his rifle scope. I knew if we took contact from that side, Walt was going to knock them down. I don’t remember if we were shot at that day, but the presence of Mesa speaking Arabic, and Walt peering through his scope, was a good thing.

The Plumendores came up from Oregon, bringing Craig Elwer in tow.

Business at the Corina Bakery was steady and better than the Gayas had hoped. I called him on one of the first business days and when he answered the phone he said he’d have to call me back. Turns out that an old and homeless Vietnam veteran had fallen into seizure on bakery the floor, and the ambulance was coming. Walt shirks off his own wounds, but he seemed grabbed by the plight of that homeless vet.

Walt lost one of his best friends in Iraq, Adam Plumendore, for whom he had a shrine in his room in Mosul. It was a touching sight and Walt still misses his friend immensely. Adam’s parents live down in Oregon and they came by the Corina Bakery to support the Gaya family business. When the Plumendores arrived, they had Craig Elwer in tow. Craig is also an Iraq veteran I got to know in Mosul. Though the Plumendores lost a son to Iraq, they gained a platoon, and Elwer in particular goes hunting nearly every weekend with Mr. Plumendore. I have never seen such a tightly knit military family.

Running a bakery is time-consuming. In the beginning, Walt’s schedule was staggering. He woke up and arrived at the Corina Bakery at about 3:45 AM, and prepared for Jessica to open while she took care of the kids. By 6:00 AM, Walt was at the Army on Fort Lewis doing physical training, and when he left Army duty at about 4 PM, he worked at the Bakery until about 6 PM, when he’d be off to college photography classes in pursuit of his dream: to become a photojournalist.

I asked Walt about all these transitions—from immigrant to American, from soldier to baker, from rolling out into combat to tucking the kids in and reading bedtime stories. He replied:

Readjustment to everyday life has not happened yet. I managed to keep myself busy mentally from the moment I got back. I started the business with Jess and maintained myself constantly occupied and have more plans ahead. Maybe sometime down the road I will go somewhere and truly decompress and reflect on what transpired in my life this past year, until then there is no rest for the wicked.

One thing is certain: the Gayas know that dreams are more likely to thrive when a family is willing to work hard, and to work smart. Their schedule just lightened as Walt left the Army this month. So now, he’s a full-time baker preparing to become a full-time baker and photography student. His work is excellent, he’s taught me a lot about photography.

 

 

Walt Gaya’s photograph of a fellow sniper in Mosul.

 

 

Walt made this photograph of Sgt Mesa comforting an Iraqi child wounded in a terrorist attack. Although the circumstances were similar, this is not the little girl Farah that I photographed.

This wasn’t the only wounded child Walt was instrumental in finding help for; nothing is harder on soldiers than seeing innocent children savaged by bullets or bombs. I asked Walt about doing a joint project at some advantageous moment. Despite seeing such horrors, he told me he is ready to go back to Iraq, shooting photos instead of bullets. As he wrote to me after his last official day as soldier:

Today I signed out on terminal leave and am out of the army. It was truly a sad feeling having to give up all of my equipment and my soldier self, but life goes on and I with it. I found myself sitting in front of my computer thinking ‘now what.’ I am not sure if you feel the same way, but it seems to me that a part of me is still in Iraq and I need to go get it back, how I will do that I don’t know yet.

Make no doubt: the cakes of the Corina Bakery are baked with love and care, by a family that knows the worth of both. Although there was a steady beat of soldiers who drove up to support the bakery while I was there, Walt reports that most of the business seems to be coming from people who live in the area, probably because the Gayas insist on baking everything from scratch. Walt made a point of telling me that everything they sell is freshly baked on site, without stabilizers or preservatives. Their specialty is red velvet cake, and it’s proving to be the most popular item with customers. If you’re in the area, make a point to stop by and try it out, and meet a new American who’s paid his admission in full, up-front.

 

 

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