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.