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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

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.

Mónica's story

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.

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