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One Veteran's Trauma Leads to Activism

New America Media/Los Angeles Daily News, Tony Castro Posted: Jun 05, 2009

Reyes in IraqRick Reyes watched golfers hitting prodigious tee-shots that looked like outgoing nighttime rocket fire at a Los Angeles driving range but had no interest in putting a club in his hands, even though he had become a recent convert to the games and seemed to take in the sight with a mixture of envy and trepidation.

It was a feeling reminiscent of the weeks and months after his discharge from the Marines in 2004 when he was full of emotions he didnt quite understand and yet seemed paralyzed to act, almost fearful that anything he did would be wrong.

Golfers know it as the yips, an acquired problem of freezing up or choking that stems from psychological causes.

Two tours in Iraq, watching real rocket fire at night, had done this to Reyes. Statistically, he was not among the military casualties. He had not been wounded in action, and he had returned home to his wife Yvette and their young family in one piece physically.

But he was not well.

I was angry at everyone, Reyes recalls. I couldnt allow people around me to have fun because I was just angry all the time. I was angry at the (anti-war) protesters. I was angry at people living out their daily lives. I was always angry, but I didnt understand why I was angry.

Reyes, then 24, had come home to South Gate in southeastern Los Angeles County, but he had no idea he had brought the war home with him.
I didnt feel like a hero, says Reyes, who served as an infantryman in the 1st Marines, 1st Marine Division. I never would even tell anyone Id been in the Marines, much less Iraq. I just wanted it all to fade away. I dont know why I felt that way. I just did.

It was only after Yvette had given birth to their second child that Reyes began looking for answers. He had no choice. He was losing Yvette, his young son Jeremy and his baby daughter Stephanie.

I thought I was fine, but when problems came up in my marriage, I knew I had to see what it was, says Reyes. It was crucial that I do everything I could to save my marriage.

He sought out counseling and learned what had really been bothering him: The war.

I feel that my patriotism was exploited, he says he finally concluded.

His own role in the war was gnawing away at him, and the more he tried not to think about it, the more it troubled him.

Most of it never really made sense, he says of his two tours in Iraq. No one could really figure out why we were there.

We were just doing constant raids that didnt make any sense. The raids were during the day, during the night, just breaking into peoples homes, just kind of ransacking everything.

Nothing set well while we were there. I know we hurt a lot of people and perhaps destroyed a lot of lives over there.

Nothing really made sense.

It especially didnt make sense when he thought of how noble and heroic it all had seemed to him. After high school, a brief unsuccessful stint in college had impressed upon him that maybe the Marines would be a better way to put his young life in order.

I joined the Marine Corps for the same reason many of our youths do, he says. I was young, naive and wanted to serve and protect my country.

On Sept. 11, 2001, the young enlisted man was partying with fellow Marines at a nightclub in Perth, Australia.

It was around midnight and all of a sudden the music stopped and there was complete silence, and they announced that America was attacked and they said everybody get back to their ships, he recalls.

At that moment, we had no idea what was going on. All we had received was that the Pentagon had been hit. So the first thing I imagined was a full-blown military attack, that somehow they had penetrated our borders and took over the Pentagon. Nobody really knew what was going on. Just that America was under attack, so everyone just thought the worst.

And heading to Afghanistan and, ultimately, to Iraq made all the sense in the world, he thought.

Everybody was all excited, he says. We felt we were there for the right reasons.

But midway through his service in Iraq, Reyes began to question his purpose there.

There was just something I could never understand, he says. I would often ask, This is retarded. Why are we doing this?

But there is a saying in the Marine Corps that goes If grunts arent complaining, they arent happy. So I just assumed it was that mentality that was imbedded into my character that would cause me to question our missions.

When he arrived home, the doubts and questioning continued.

It wasnt a great welcoming and it became very unsettling. Michael Moores (film) Fahrenheit 9/11 was in theatres at the time which just made me feel so much worse

I didnt want to talk about it, least of all with my wife.

Reyes concedes that he took his family for granted and became immersed in trying to forget Iraq by carving out a career in the then booming California real estate market. He passed his state real estate examination and found he had a flare for brokering mortgage loans.

But Reyes also was learning that the migraines he was experiencing, along with other emotional problems were symptomatic of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder a diagnosis made his private mental health counselor.

Reyes, who at times says he also suffers from memory loss and problems with his vision, was also diagnosed suffering from a traumatic brain injury, the result of being so close to bomb explosions jarring his brain inside his skull.

The diagnoses and all his mental health care have been done by private physicians and psychiatrists, he says, because he was turned away for treatment at the Veterans Affairs hospital facilities over a discharge snafu by the military.

The problem was his separation paperwork from the Marines, a document formally known as Defense Department Form 214 but referred to in military parlance as DD214, which is as important as a birth certificate and social security number.

The DD214, the lifeblood to a veteran getting his benefits, is supposed to include a serviceman's entire record of service -- from date of induction, the location and dates of training and military duty, wounds and injuries and commendations.

In Reyess case, his incomplete DD214 shows only his dates of induction and discharge but nothing to document his tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There is no way to prove I was there, he says. It could take up to a year to get a response (from the military), and its a constant uphill battle.

Until he receives his amended DD14, Reyes will continue to depend on his personal medical health plan to cover the costs of his treatment, which he said has already been in the thousands of dollars.

Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks, and veterans benefits counselors say complaints about incomplete DD214s are common -- in part because Operation Iraqi Freedom is an ongoing war that complicates an already overburdened government bureaucracy.

Obviously, the federal government needs to be doing a better job in unsnarling these problems, said Sherman.

A Defense Department spokesman said each branch of the military is responsible for preparing its personnels discharge papers.

A spokesman for the Marine Corps said there is no timeframe for correcting incomplete discharge paperwork.

Christopher Duarte, a benefits counselor with the Los Angeles County Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, says it is common among Iraqi Freedom veterans to see incomplete DD214s, which always delay getting benefits.

The same thing happened to me when I was discharged, says Duarte, a former Marine who was discharged in 2001.

It is small consolation to Reyes, who now at age 28, almost five years since he last set foot in Iraq, believes he has finally come to find some peace of mind and some understanding for all that anger that threatened to consume him.

In 2008 I figured out who I was angry at, and when it became apparent, it ignited a fire, he says. I was angry at the administration, I was angry at a country and a constitution I took an oath to protect against enemies foreign or domestic.

Once I realized that, I joined Iraq Veterans Against the War.

And, in a sense, he remains at war.

Reyes even looks the part. In an office of mortgage brokers, he stands out. He still wears his hair short in the traditional Marine buzz-cut, and the posture is military picture perfect.

He remains uncertain of whom to trust beyond his wife and family, and it pains him to remember too much about Iraq and why he was there.

Today I find myself fighting domestic enemies, and those enemies are within our (former) administration, he says. Enemies governed by greed and (self) interest. As an American veteran I feel that Ive been exploited to protect special interests in Iraq under false pretenses.

Im doing the most patriotic thing I can do in opposing the war. Its very hard to see that were still there, and, unfortunately, I just dont see a very easy way out. I dont know what the solution is except that we dont belong there.

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