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Battles on the Home Front: Part IV - A Family Tradition

Adult children are coming home from war with physical and emotional scares, changing mom and dad's retirement plans forever.

A Family Tradition

“Come in, sit down. We’re washing clothes, making food, and Carlos is helping Yarlos with his homework,” Alba Iglesias Rosario says as she rushes around the kitchen of her home in Cabo Rojo, a town near Puerto Rico’s southwestern coast known for its fresh seafood. A typical family on a typical Saturday afternoon? Not really.

Alba, 55, and her husband, Carlos Ferrer Rodríguez, 59, have opened their home to their battle-worn and recently divorced son, Carlos Ferrer Iglesias, 37, and his four children, ages 5 to 15. Alba and Carlos have been raising the two oldest, from their son’s first marriage, for many years. But just two weeks earlier, the youngest children’s mother moved to New York and left them with the younger Carlos.

He was among the first National Guardsmen sent to Iraq in 2003, part of a group known as “The Lost Platoon,” because no one knew where it went until weeks after they left Puerto Rico. Cryptic phone messages—an Iraqi with a satellite phone charged him $2 per minute—let family know where he was.

His second tour of duty as an infantryman—from January 2007 until February 2008—took him to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. He’s already been told to expect a tour in Somalia, Iraq, or Afghanistan in 2009 or 2010, despite a partial hearing loss and a back injury that has yet to be treated.

Carlos is one in a long line of family members who have served and continue to serve in the U.S. military, Alba says. At one point, her son and three nephews were all in Iraq. The tradition was welded fast when her 22-year-old brother, Julio Antonio Iglesias Rosario III, a U.S. Marine, was killed in Vietnam. A photograph of him in dress blues, including cape, motivated all of her nephews to join the military. “He was a hero for my nephews,” she says.

And she, in a sense, has become a family heroine for them, too. “People tell me I’m strong, that I’m like my mother” Alba says. “She had to deal with the loss of her son and would always tell me, ‘We have to be there for [our soldiers]; we have to support them, no matter what.’ ”

“I’m like the rock for everybody,” says Alba, who also supports three nephews who recently returned from Iraq: one whose mother, her sister, has Alzheimer’s; another who had to leave the military because of unremitting nightmares; and a third who was stung by divorce upon his return.

“I’m not saying I’m not sensitive; I am. I cry; it’s healthy,” she says. “I am the support, but I look for support too, because I need it.” A lot.

Besides working part-time in a Puerto Rico legislator’s office and serving as a city council member in her town, she gets support from and volunteers with the National Guard’s Family Readiness Program, which helps families through various transitions when their loved ones are sent to war and when they return. She recently called more than 342 wives and invited them to a free Family Readiness seminar. Only about 35 wives showed up, she says, but many grandparents who are caring for their grandchildren attended.

Alba says grandparents have to set boundaries with their children when caregiving becomes part of the mix. “Not all of [the returning vets] are conscious of what this takes,” she says of the hard work. “I told [my son] it was too much for me. I’ll cook, clean, and wash the clothes, but he has to take care of the kids.”

On her son’s part, the parenting lessons have been tough. “I didn’t know taking care of the kids was so terrible. When they fight, they really fight.”

Alba and her husband, a police officer, want the best for their son and grandkids, but they miss what life might be like without the added responsibilities. “We should be having good times, going out,” she says, “but we’re not going to tell him he has to leave with the kids. He has no place to go.”

The Family Readiness Program also reaches out to the kids, planning various activities for them, she says, and that’s important too.

Carlos, who still hasn’t found a job, is focused on his children. “I’ve learned to value family a lot more,” he says. “During these two missions I’ve learned that it hurts to be separated from family. And now I know that children need their parents and that I need them, too.” Because his parents raised his oldest children, he’s just now learning who they are and how to spend time with them, he says.

“He’s learning to be a father and mother at the same time,” Alba says. And she, “the rock,” is ever ready to offer her support.

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