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 The fun- and baseball-loving dad who had spoiled his wife and daughter endlessly became withdrawn, suffered from nighttime flashbacks, and endured severe pain from a shoulder injury.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!’”