Mónica Mendoza’s son went to war. She didn’t expect the war to come home with him—but it did.
Puerto Rico’s young and not-so-young sent to Iraq, Afghanistan, and other foreign shores have a stark new reality waiting for them when they return. Vets are suffering from physical and mental wounds. Families are being ripped apart. And their island is going through massive upheaval. Culture, traditions, and economy have all become part of the war’s collateral damage.
At a time when the island’s boomers should be preparing for retirement, many find themselves caring for young grandchildren, injured spouses or, like Mónica, an adult child whose invisible wounds could mean a lifetime of caregiving. Traditional family roles are being turned upside down, divorce is more common, unemployment among veterans is rising, and war keeps leaving its mark in the minds and on the bodies of Puerto Rico.
The War Inside
Jorge Mendoza is handsome, physically fit, and psychologically devastated. Almost a year after returning to Puerto Rico from a tour of duty in Iraq, the 34-year-old can’t shake off a deep depression, hold a job, or live on his own. Once a responsible, financially secure divorced father of a 7-year-old, he now depends on his parents, Mónica and José, for guidance, a place to live, and monetary support.
The family—who asked to remain anonymous, so their names have been changed—agreed to share their story only through a third party, Melba Sánchez Ayéndez, Ph.D., a social gerontologist and cultural anthropologist in San Juan.
Mónica and José—she’s a university professor and he’s a highly successful business owner—find themselves living a life drastically different from what they had envisioned for their later years. No more vacation plans, no reduced work hours to enjoy life a bit more, no talking with pride about their son’s patriotic service.
“It’s not the center of their conversation, but it’s the center of their lives,” says Sánchez Ayéndez. The Mendozas are struggling through a transition period, she says. They, like many others in similar situations, are reluctant to talk about their plight because they don’t yet know exactly what that plight is. “They’re building a new world, establishing new routines, yet feeling out of control because they don’t know what will happen to their son. It takes time.”
Mónica, she says, loves being a grandmother to her son’s young daughter but is trying hard to accept that she’s also her grown son’s babysitter. Although Jorge now is employed by the family business, the powerful anti-depressants make it difficult for him to work, and Mónica still fears what he might do if left alone.
Not long ago, Sánchez Ayéndez confided in Mónica that her own son is a special needs child who may never be able to live independently or hold a fulfilling job. Mónica responded: “But you don’t have to worry every day whether he’s going to commit suicide.”
José is just plain angry. A retired member of the Puerto Rico National Guard, he was pleased when his son joined the same military branch, and he supported the war in Iraq. No longer. Now he’s angry at the military, angry that his son isn’t getting better, angry that his life has taken a U-turn and placed the family on a roller coaster with a broken “off” switch.
The pressures on Mónica and the roles she plays keep mounting. She used to regularly go shopping and out to lunch with her elderly mother, who lives in her own home but with a full-time caregiver. These days, Jorge often makes it a threesome because she’s afraid to leave him alone. And when Jorge and José get into arguments, Mónica becomes a referee.
Ever the doting grandmother, she now worries about how her grandchild is affected by Jorge’s illness, Sánchez Ayéndez says. The elder Mendozas and the maternal grandparents help with parenting duties and contribute financially. The Mendozas also pay for their granddaughter’s psychological counseling. Just as her father is no longer the vibrant, fun-loving daddy she knew before he left for Iraq, she’s not the same bright, cheerful little girl. Now she gets angry and shuts people out, they say.
Mónica has had to move up her retirement date—but not to retire in the way she had previously envisioned. Once expecting to leave her job at age 62, her last day of employment will be in December 2008, at age 60. That way she can be more involved in her granddaughter’s upbringing and better able to take care of her mother and son.
“If you were to see [Jorge] in line at the movies, you’d never know there was anything wrong with him,” Sánchez Ayéndez says. But very few people know how the Iraq war lives inside his head day in and day out. Or the turn the Mendozas’ lives have taken.
At the Ready
Service is a tradition in Puerto Rico. With more than 7,000 troops—42 percent between age 40 and 60—its Army National Guard is the 18th largest in the nation. Since 9/11, more than 90 percent of the island’s Guard members have been deployed, many for more than one tour of duty. And more than 146,000 veterans live on the island.
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