Jeff Jardine

Family's heart broken 2nd time

Nearly 12 years ago, the Buila family of Modesto buried 11-year-old son Andrew. He was a happy boy who played baseball, did well at Ustach Middle School and whose favorite color was green.

He died in an accidental shooting while at a friend's home.

Later this week in Hughson, the Builas will bury their eldest, Lance Cpl. Michael Buila, a 31-year-old Marine who died from an apparent heart attack Wednesday afternoon while at Camp Pendleton near San Diego.

An 11-year-old boy dies from a gunshot wound at a friend's home in Modesto, and a seasoned Marine gunner who did two tours of duty in Iraq, known for its roadside bombs and gunfire in the streets, dies from heart failure in his barracks back home.

Sometimes, mom Nancy Buila said, things just don't make sense. There's nothing she can do but shed her tears for Michael and know in her heart that he and Andrew are together again.

"You have to keep going," she said. "You take it and you go. That's all. We're a really tough family."

Still, it hurts deeply, even as Michael's Marine friends and officers told stories about him during a special service Friday morning at the base.

"I'm not going to tell you I didn't pull up on that base and fall apart, seeing all of those Marines and knowing my son was one of them," she said.

Her strength, bolstered by her spirituality and hardened by life's experiences, is being tested once again.

On Nov. 29, 1996, Andrew Buila, the youngest of Nancy and Mick Buila's four sons, was visiting a friend. The boys somehow got into a locked bedroom, where they found a gun. It discharged, killing Andrew.

I wrote about the accident, and I remember to this day how Nancy and Mick welcomed me into their home at such a devastating time.

Fast forward to two weeks ago, when Nancy sent me an e-mail and we later talked by phone. It was the first time we'd been in contact since December 1996, when Andrew's story appeared.

She told me she and her husband had since divorced. She plans to remarry in October. Andrew's brothers, she said, grew into strong, determined men. Michael became a career Marine who served in Iraq.

Matthew, 28, spent four years in the Marines before suffering a back injury while in Iraq, where he once had a chance meeting with Michael. And Andy was with Matthew always, if only in his heart.

"Matthew carried (Andrew's) picture constantly," Nancy said. "In Iraq, the picture finally wore to nothing. He would take it out and look at it all the time."

Joseph, now 25, became an electrician and lives in Modesto.

Nancy e-mailed me because Matthew is battling leukemia and a kidney ailment. He awoke in pain one morning in May. He went to the veterans hospital in Loma Linda, in Southern California. They found he had an enlarged spleen and diagnosed his ailments.

He and his wife, Jissica, are awaiting the September birth of their first child, Hailee Marie, who will bring them more than simply the joys of parenthood. Her umbilical cord contains stem cells that could prolong Matthew's life. They plan on freezing it for use in his treatments.

Nancy has started a fund in his name at Washington Mutual (any branch) to help offset medical costs not covered by their insurance and wanted people to know they could contribute if they are moved to do so. Her voice exuded hope as she talked about her unborn granddaughter and the role the child could play in Matthew's life.

"You see, this isn't a bad story," said Nancy, who now lives in Pollock Pines. "Things happen for a reason. We just have bumps in the road, as my dad would say. We just have to get over this one."

Remember, this conversation took place before Wednesday, the day she got the kind of call every parent dreads -- again. It was more than a bump. Michael, she was told, had collapsed just minutes after meeting and joking with other Marines.

A Marines public affairs officer said only that Michael died en route to a medical facility and that his death is under investigation. But, Nancy said, it was heart failure, a weakness possibly exploited by a kidney stone attack he'd suffered a day or so earlier.

"They're just stunned," said Nancy, who traveled immediately to San Diego upon hearing the news. "Mike was 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds of solid muscle. He was in tremendous shape."

The family plans to hold a funeral service at Lakewood Memorial Park, possibly Friday.

The Builas, who buried one son a dozen years ago, must now bury another.

"God gave me a strength I didn't know was humanly possible," Nancy Buila said. "I am sick with grief, yet remember there is always a tomorrow. Andy missed his big brother. Now, he smiles."

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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