Mónica Mendoza's son went to war. She didn't expect the war to come home with him—but it did.
Puerto Rico's young and not-so-young sent to Iraq, Afghanistan, and other foreign shores have a stark new reality waiting for them when they return. Vets are suffering from physical and mental wounds. Families are being ripped apart. And their island is going through massive upheaval. Culture, traditions, and economy have all become part of the war's collateral damage.
At a time when the island's boomers should be preparing for retirement, many find themselves caring for young grandchildren, injured spouses or, like Mónica, an adult child whose invisible wounds could mean a lifetime of caregiving.
Traditional family roles are being turned upside down, divorce is more common, unemployment among veterans is rising, and the war keeps leaving its mark in the minds and on the bodies of Puerto Rico.
At the Ready
Service is a tradition in Puerto Rico. With more than 10,000 troops—42 percent between age 40 and 60—its National Guard is the 18th largest in the nation. Since 9/11, more than 90 percent of the island's Guard members have been deployed, many for more than one tour of duty. And some 125,000 veterans—65,000 retired—live on the island.
Jorge Mendoza is handsome, physically fit, and psychologically devastated. Almost a year after returning to Puerto Rico from a tour of duty in Iraq, the 34-year-old can't shake off a deep depression, hold a job, or live on his own. Once a responsible, financially secure divorced father of a 7-year-old, he now depends on his parents, Mónica and José, for guidance, a place to live, and monetary support.
The family—who asked to remain anonymous, so their names have been changed—agreed to share their story only through a third party, Melba Sánchez-Ayéndez, Ph.D., a social gerontologist and cultural anthropologist in San Juan.
Mónica and José—she's a university professor and he's a highly successful business owner—find themselves living a life drastically different from what they had envisioned for their later years. No more vacation plans, no reduced work hours to enjoy life a bit more, no talking with pride about their son's patriotic duty.
"It's not the center of their conversation, but it's the center of their lives," says Sánchez-Ayéndez. The Mendozas are struggling through a transition period, she says. They, like many others in similar situations, are reluctant to talk about their plight because they might not yet know exactly what that plight is. "They're building a new world, establishing new routines, yet feeling out of control because they don't know what will happen to their son. It takes time."
Mónica, she says, loves being a grandmother to her son's young daughter but is trying hard to accept that she's also her grown son's babysitter. Jorge is on powerful anti-depressants, but Mónica still fears what he might do if left alone.
Not long ago, Sánchez-Ayéndez confided in Mónica that her own son is a special needs child who may never be able to live independently or hold a fulfilling job. Mónica responded: "But you don't have to worry every day whether he's going to commit suicide."
José is just plain angry. A retired member of the National Guard, he was pleased when his son joined the same military branch, and he supported the war in Iraq. No longer. Now he's angry at the military, angry that his son isn't getting better, angry that his life has taken a U-turn and placed the family on a rollercoaster with a broken "off" switch.
The pressures on Mónica and the roles she plays keep mounting. She used to take her elderly mother—who lives in her own home but with a full-time caregiver—shopping and out to lunch on a regular basis. These days, Jorge often makes it a threesome because she's afraid to leave him alone. And when Jorge and José get into arguments, Mónica becomes a referee.
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.
The kids aren't a burden, Miguel Sr., 59, insists. He likes to joke with them and admits he's less of a disciplinarian than he was with his own son. "I'm not their father, I'm their grandfather," he says with a grin, "and that's how I treat them."
Luz's body language tells another story. Dangling from her neck are two symbols of her life today: a crucifix and a cell phone. Faith and responsibility. Across the room sitting on a sofa, the 60-year-old grandmother barely moves, hands clasped in her lap. Her shoulders sag and worry lines crease her forehead. Only when the phone rings—which happens repeatedly—does she look energized. Of course, the calls are all kid-related.
Yes, her life has changed a lot. "I'm responsible for them. If something happens, I have to take care of it, like taking them to the doctor if they get sick. Their father used to do that," she continues. She can't sleep in anymore, even if she's the one who feels ill, and she can't nap because the kids' schedules keep her tied up in the afternoons. Taking time to clean house seems a luxury.
But, "God always provides," Miguel Sr. says. "He doesn't give us anything we can't handle." That's true even when it comes to finances, he says, giving an example to make his point. He hasn't worked for the past three weeks because it's low season at the nearby resort where he's a banquet server. But the money he earned during this year's high season was much more than last year's, so they're making do, even though, he says, the kids "eat a lot more than we do."
"You see, God knew we were going to have our grandchildren with us this year," he says. And you find yourself waiting for him to add: "Punto final." Period.
"The modern technology in the theater of operations means we have more soldiers coming back, but fewer are dead and more are disabled," says Deputy State Surgeon Marta Carcana. "Once you get the disabled vet home…it's a whole new way of doing business."
Puerto Rico's National Guard members and their families have a host of services and benefits, but aren't always able to access them. Distances from home to help, the number of wounded, and an overcrowded VA hospital contribute to the problem.
For the families left behind, there are Family Readiness Centers throughout the island that offer seminars, counseling, help with paperwork, and other services.
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 on the island's northeastern side. 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 Ft. Buchanan in Puerto Rico.
And the Roberto who returned wasn't the same man who'd said goodbye to his wife Linnette, 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 four 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 he was in Iraq, she would send her brother 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 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 one 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 Army Chaplain Alejandro Sánches. 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 CDC's National Vital Statistics Reports.
Deployment is often an excuse for 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 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, where 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.
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 known for its fresh seafood and located near Puerto Rico's southeastern coast. 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. They've been raising the two oldest, from Carlos' first marriage, for many years. But just two weeks earlier, the youngest children's mother moved to New York, and left them with Carlos.
The younger Carlos was among the first National Guardsmen sent to Iraq in 2003. He was part of a group known as "The Lost Platoon," because no one knew to where they had been sent until weeks after they left Puerto Rico. Cryptic phone messages—an Iraqi with a satellite phone charged him $2 per minute—let his family know where he was.
His second tour of duty as an infantryman—from January 2007 until February 2008—took him to Egypt and the 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 being a city council member in her town, she also 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 also 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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