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The War Inside

girl holding photo of soldiers in Iraq

Pebbles L. Ferrer Barber, 5, holds a photo of her father's 'Lost Platoon.' — Julie Bullock

Ever the doting grandmother, she now worries how her grandchild is affected by Jorge's illness, Sánchez-Ayéndez says. The elder Mendozas and the maternal grandparents now help with parenting duties and contribute financially. The Mendozas  also pay for their granddaughter's psychological counseling. Just as her father is not the vibrant, fun-loving daddy she knew before he left for Iraq, she's not the same bright, cheerful little girl. Now she gets angry and shuts people out, they say.

Mónica has had to move up her retirement date—but not to retire in the way she had previously envisioned. Once expecting to leave her job at age 62, her last day of employment will be December 2008, at age 60. That way she can be more involved in her granddaughter's upbringing and able to take care of her mother and son.

"If you were to see [Jorge] in line at the movies, you'd never know there was anything wrong with him," Sánchez-Ayéndez says. But very few people know how the Iraq war lives inside his head day in and day out. Or the turn the Mendozas lives have taken.

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 Sr. 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 Sr.; 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 patrols 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.

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