Guantánamo Bay: So Near, Yet So Far
The sizzle of bacalaitos frying in the kitchen competes with the steamy heat under the Velezes’s carport, where a countertop holds a butcher knife and small bits of fish. The warmth you feel inside is as much from the lack of air conditioning as from the family members who welcome you into their living room.
Miguel Velez apologizes for the piping-hot island favorites: they’re too salty, he says, handing over one of the oddly shaped cod fritters wrapped in a white paper napkin.
The family’s modest home—in Fajardo, near the island’s northeastern coast—sits almost across the street from a cemetery that soon will be filled with brightly colored Mother’s Day flowers. In the living room are Miguel; his wife, Luz Bruno; and their grandchildren Miguel, Adriana, and Ángel. Adrián, not yet six months old, is at a neighbor’s home. The baby’s three siblings, meanwhile, have draped themselves across one of their grandparents’ sofas.
Ángel, 11, responds first when the three are asked how they felt the day they learned their dad, Sgt. Miguel Enrique Velez, would spend the next year with the National Guard in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
“Angry,” the hip-hop-loving boy says. “I can’t be with him. We used to go shopping, ride horses, go places.” On the January day his father left, he says, “I wanted to go with him in his suitcase. I want to be in the military, just like my dad.”
Adriana’s silver-strapped, cork-wedged sandals and philosophical response to the same question belie her age. “I felt very sad. [Now] the house feels so empty. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle with a piece missing,” the 9-year-old says softly.
Miguel, 12, says little. But his dark eyes brighten his round face when he mentions talking with his dad via computer. It takes a long time to connect and the images are blurry, he explains, so it’s not like he can really see him. But there are benefits. “He can’t spank me,” he says, a mischievous smile breaking through. Still, his dad holds the upper hand by threatening to have Luz mete out punishment if needed.
And discipline has been a problem, their grandmother says. Even the kids agree that they fight more. One day earlier, Ángel had attended his first session with a psychologist, paid for by the military. His father’s absence has hurt him emotionally and affected his behavior, Luz says.
This is the second time Miguel Enrique—a member of the mounted police who patrol Puerto Rico’s beaches—has left for an extended period. The 33-year-old also spent nine months deployed to Italy. That time, too, the couple cared full-time for the two oldest boys, who are from Miguel Enrique’s first marriage. The two youngest—from his current marriage—live with their mother, but the Velezes pick Adriana up from school and spend Saturdays with her.
The kids aren’t a burden, the elder Miguel, 59, insists. He likes to joke with them and admits he’s less of a disciplinarian than he was with his own son. “I’m not their father, I’m their grandfather,” he says with a grin, “and that’s how I treat them.”
Luz’s body language tells another story. Dangling from her neck are two symbols of her life today: a crucifix and a cell phone. Faith and responsibility. Across the room, sitting on a sofa, the 60-year-old grandmother barely moves, hands clasped in her lap. Her shoulders sag and worry lines crease her forehead. Only when the phone rings—which happens repeatedly—does she look energized. Of course, the calls are all kid-related.
Yes, her life has changed a lot. “I’m responsible for them. If something happens, I have to take care of it, like taking them to the doctor if they get sick. Their father used to do that,” she continues. She can’t sleep in anymore, even if she’s the one who feels ill, and she can’t nap because the kids’ schedules keep her tied up in the afternoons. Taking time to clean house seems a luxury
But “God always provides,” Miguel says. “He doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle.” That’s true even when it comes to finances, he says, giving an example to make his point. He hasn’t worked for the past three weeks because it’s low season at the nearby resort where he’s a banquet server. But the money he earned during this year’s high season was much more than last year’s. So they’re making do, he says, even though the kids “eat a lot more than we do.”
“You see, God knew we were going to have our grandchildren with us this year,” the grandfather says. And you find yourself waiting for him to add: “Punto final.” Period.
“The modern technology in the theater of operations means we have more soldiers coming back, but fewer are dead and more are disabled,” says Deputy State Surgeon Marta Carcana. “Once you get the disabled vet home … it’s a whole new way of doing business.”
Puerto Rico National Guard members and their families have a host of services and benefits, but they aren’t always able to access them. Distances from home to help, the number of wounded, and an overcrowded Veterans Affairs hospital contribute to the problem.
“It has to do with being on an island,” Carcano says. “My soldier can’t get on a Greyhound bus and ride to another state. My soldier has to get on a plane with his family and stay in a hotel to get help. It’s not the same.”
For the families left behind when a soldier goes to war, Family Readiness Centers throughout the island offer seminars, counseling, help with paperwork, and other services.
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