Strength in Numbers
The explosions Sgt. Roberto Lloret heard on July 4, 2007, in Iraq weren’t Independence Day fireworks. They did, however, give him more than a rough estimate of the high cost of fighting for freedom. He’s paying the price in physical, psychological, and brain trauma injuries. He’s not complaining.
In October 2007 he returned to Aguadilla, a town of friendly people, colorful homes, and an air of familial tranquility near the island’s northwestern corner. But his trip home wasn’t a smooth nonstop flight from Iraq. He had layovers in military hospitals in Germany, Washington, D.C., North Carolina, and Fort Buchanan in Puerto Rico.
And the Roberto who returned wasn’t the same man who’d said goodbye to his wife Linnette Nieves, 26; his 5-year-old daughter, Alaihia; and his large extended family. The fun- and baseball-loving dad who had spoiled his wife and daughter endlessly became withdrawn, suffered from nighttime flashbacks, and endured severe pain from a shoulder injury.
“Because of all the experiences I had…you change,” says Roberto, 29. “You’re always on the defensive. When there’s a sound, you jump. Many of us weren’t like that before. Now we know what the others [vets] were going through.”
He pauses, perhaps wondering if he should share one of those experiences. Finally he does, describing what happened when the IED (improvised explosive device) exploded on July 4: “The gunner was next to me. All the fragments went into him. I had some, but not many. As the [armored] vehicle caught fire, I couldn’t see the driver or the gunner anymore. [The explosion] was like a hot knife through butter.”
The next thing he knew, he was in a hospital. No one died in that attack. That was the second time his vehicle had been hit by an IED, he said. The first was three months earlier.
He cringes when the first thing someone asks is, “How many did you kill?” “That’s their hello,” he says, still incredulous. “You don’t want to talk about it. It’s not the same to talk about it as to live it, not the same to see it in a movie.”
As Roberto has changed, so has his family. Unlike many wives of returning vets who have found themselves at odds with their “new” husbands and either separated or divorced, Linnette chose to accept rather than to challenge.
“When he got here, he wanted to isolate himself. I understood that I had to adapt, too,” she says, sitting in their tidy living room, where family photos cover the walls. “He would say it was too noisy in here and that he had to leave.”
That was hurtful, she says, especially when it was his daughter’s chatter that caused him to withdraw. And Linnette had to get used to not being so spoiled. “Whenever I wanted something, he would go and get it for me. When he left, I missed that. I had to get it myself,” she recalls. “I knew he had ‘come back’ when he started spoiling me again. Now I spoil him, giving him the things he likes, like making lasagna, his favorite.”
Throughout the conversation, the front screen door opens and shuts. Nieces and nephews drop by; Roberto’s older sister, Delmaris Lloret, 32, comes in and sits in the kitchen listening quietly. A little while later, she reveals the key role she played. While her brother was in Iraq, she would send a daily Internet greeting card and watch for the notice that it had been opened. “Even though he didn’t respond,” she says, “I would call Linnette, my parents, all the family, and tell them, ‘He’s still alive! He opened the card!’”
His mother, Luz Nereida Irizarry, 52, who suffers from depression, began to fall even deeper into her illness when Roberto left. She shared caregiving duties with Alaihia’s other grandparents and clung to her faith in God, to the National Guard’s Family Readiness Program, and to the connection she felt with other Puerto Rican families whose loved ones were away at war. She attended the program’s seminars, pushed to have resources made available nearby, and encouraged others to participate in support groups.
“We’d heard about other wars—Korea, Vietnam, the [Persian] Gulf War—but we never had to face something like this,” she says of the National Guard’s and Army Reserves’ mobilization. “I know there are a lot of war veterans, but this is the first [war] we’ve had to [personally] live through.”
One of the toughest times was when Roberto was in a North Carolina hospital. His grandfather, Luz’s father, was dying and asking for his grandson. Roberto was allowed to go home to Puerto Rico early, but his grandfather died two days before his arrival. “We went right from the airport to the funeral. It was heartbreaking, but while one life left, another came back,” Luz says.
Roberto’s transition to health and a normal life continues. In April, he underwent surgery on his shoulder, probably the easiest of his wounds to treat. His mother accompanies him to doctor’s appointments, sometimes three or four times a week. He sees a psychologist and a psychiatrist for treatment of his post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, an orthopedist, and a physical therapist. The trips can take from 20 minutes to two hours each way, especially when he has to drive to the San Juan-based VA hospital, the only facility with a traumatic brain injury clinic.
“This experience was so hard and yet so enriching,” Luz says. “We have learned that as human beings we are exposed to lots of risks in life, some we can’t even begin to imagine. The fact that we survive shows us that God places a lot of value on our lives.”
“We have a rather high incidence of divorce among our soldiers,” says National Guard Chaplain Major Alejandro Sánchez. In 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq, there were 14,222 divorces in Puerto Rico. The number jumped to 16,061 in 2004, and by 2005 the number was 18,376, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Vital Statistics Reports.
Deployment is often an excuse for ending a marriage already in trouble, he says: “The deployment pushes them off the edge and they decide to separate.” The National Guard’s Strong Bonds program offers couples a weekend retreat where they learn strategies to cope with the transition when a spouse returns from duty.
But despite the attempts, marriages sometimes crumble. Alba Iglesias Rosario, whose story follows, says her son’s wife, like many others she’s known, found new independence and freedom during his deployment. The traditional Puerto Rican family structure, in which the male is the decision-maker, is dying, she says. After taking over all the household duties and decisions, women aren’t ready to give them all back. “Of the six men I know who have gone to Iraq, almost all have gotten divorced,” she says.
Next ArticleRead This