Aftershocks from Iraq

Richard Sandoval went down the road to war with his comrades, but he has now returned to Woodland with feelings of isolation and anger

Photo By Larry Dalton

Richard Sandoval, a stocky 30-year-old Marine reservist, put a box of souvenirs down between his feet and sat in an armchair in his grandmother’s Woodland living room. He pulled out an Iraqi soldier’s belt, piles of photos and three black berets, one with a tag that read “Ministry of Defense Iraqi Armed Force” and another decorated with a thin metal eagle insignia.

“We surprised 12 soldiers,” said Sandoval, handling the berets gently. “We saw them take off their uniforms and run.”

Sandoval pulled out an Iraqi flag with the words “God is great” in Arabic and thoughtfully fingered the bullet holes in the thin fabric. He said he’d taken it from inside an Iraqi bunker.

A born storyteller, Sandoval explained what it was like to be one of the first Marines to cross Iraq on the way to Baghdad in March 2003. He vividly described the burning cities and horrifying explosions, but he grew somber and uncomfortable when he talked about killing enemy soldiers. His dramatic travelogue made the artifacts and pictures in his box seem surreal and incongruent. In one snapshot, he’s posing among Babylonian ruins like a regular tourist; in another, he’s smiling as he prepares to fish from the Euphrates River with a homemade fishing pole. In a third, happy-looking Iraqi children are smiling for the camera. But these are paired with gruesome and weighty images: burned-out buses, bloodied bodies in the distance, bags of confiscated cash, and Iraqi storehouses full of guns and missiles. And the photos inspired mental images that were even worse: dying children stumbling across roads, and Iraqi officers beaten nearly to death and abandoned at military checkpoints.

Sandoval knows that talking through such memories is therapeutic. Though recounting events occasionally makes his voice shake with emotion, it also ignites his pride at having served as a U.S. Marine—even in a war he wasn’t supposed to fight.

In January 2003, Sandoval was preparing to complete his four-year active-duty commitment to the Marines when his duty suddenly was extended for six months, and he was sent to Kuwait to wait for war.

In the middle of a March night, the 1st Marine Division was woken up, blessed by a chaplain and handed a copy of a “Commanding General’s Message to All Hands,” which Sandoval since has framed: “On your young shoulders rest the hopes of mankind,” it reads. “When I give you the word, together we will cross the Line of Departure, close with those forces that choose to fight, and destroy them.”

Having made sergeant on the way to Iraq, Sandoval joined a Humvee full of corporals on the southern road from the Kuwaiti border to Baghdad; the road came to be known as Highway Hell for the number of enemy encounters there.

At first, said Sandoval, Iraqi soldiers shed their uniforms and gave up, blending into the populace. But halfway to Baghdad, in an-Nasiriyah, the war really began.

Crossing a bridge into town late at night, Sandoval saw rubble and buildings on fire where the artillery units had provided cover for the Marines rolling through. Iraqi soldiers lay dead in the streets. “The smell was unbearable,” said Sandoval. “The worst smell in the world is a burned body.”

While recounting, Sandoval regularly gave off a throaty, dry chuckle that made him sound apologetic, or simply uncomfortable.

Driving between two- and three-story buildings on littered streets, the Marines took shots at snipers on the roofs, sometimes shooting just at flashes of muzzle fire, unable to pinpoint a figure in the dark. Sandoval remembers the sky thick with smoke. “It was an eerie feeling,” he said. “The sky was, like, green.”

From an-Nasiriyah, the Marines moved north, clearing towns of Iraqi soldiers and moving on. Whether he was camped at a cigarette factory or sleeping in dug-out trenches, random sniper fire kept Sandoval on constant alert. He remembers one Iraqi soldier shooting at Marines over the heads of his wife and child; Sandoval believes that soldiers must have hit the woman and child when they shot back.

The backs of the Marines’ Humvees were covered in canvas stretched over a metal skeleton, and they kept the canvas rolled up for better visibility, said Sandoval. Even with guns pointed outward, they felt exposed. Because of a supply mix-up, soldiers only had one metal plate for either the front or the back of their bulletproof vests. This was the one thing Sandoval hated about the military: Here was a great fighting force with the greatest technology, he said, and soldiers had to choose to protect either their chests or their backs. One Marine, said Sandoval, wore his plate against his back. He was hit in the chest with sniper fire, and the bullet went all the way through, hit the back plate and ricocheted back through the soldier’s body. That’s what killed him.

Another sniper got a friend of Sandoval’s in the arm as the two sat shoulder to shoulder, reading a map. “He’s OK,” said Sandoval. “He didn’t lose his arm.”

Although Sandoval seemed to relish telling stories, he grew cautious when talking about personally taking lives. You don’t really know who and how many, he explained, because sometimes you’re shooting in the dark or calling for others to do the bombing, as Sandoval did by radio. But he knows in his heart that he killed sons and fathers.

Among Sgt. Richard Sandoval’s artifacts is an Iraqi flag he took from a bunker during combat.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Sandoval told a story of an early-morning firefight in which he ordered a bunker full of soldiers bombed.

At dawn, while the Marines were doing vehicle maintenance, a number of Iraqi soldiers with hoes and pitchforks moved behind Sandoval’s platoon toward orchards and fields. They were waving white flags and waving hello to the Americans. But they were bluffing. “They were writing down our positions,” said Sandoval.

From the tailgate of his Humvee, Sandoval was surprised by the sound of rockets flying directly over his head. “You could kind of feel the heat,” and “it was an awful sound,” he said repeatedly, as he told of getting down on the ground where stray bullets kicked sand up into his face. To this day, Sandoval still hears ringing in his ears.

Across a road, Sandoval could see Iraqi soldiers running between small mud huts. The sound of explosions was deafening, and Sandoval’s Marines, who were lined up to cross the road, didn’t hear him order them across. “I remember running. I was alone,” Sandoval said.

From behind some dirt mounds, Sandoval saw maybe 10 Iraqi soldiers run into one bunker; the bunker’s location was marked on Sandoval’s map. “I got on the radio and called for air support. Within minutes, they took out the bunker,” said Sandoval. “That was the end of that.”

Sandoval’s voice fell flat. He gave a dry chuckle.

Sandoval, who’s affable by nature and often dresses casually in shorts that show off the Marine tattoos on the backs of his calves, described himself as not just a “nice guy,” but “passive.” He regularly repeated tag lines like “the hardest thing for me was …”

“Taking someone’s life is really hard,” he said mildly, as if he were still getting used to the idea months later. And it was really hard to see a soldier he’d trained lose his hand and hard to know who the enemies were when they could blend into the populace. It was hard for Sandoval to leave his unit and come home earlier than the rest of the men he’d trained, and it was even harder to be a civilian again.

Four-and-a-half years of regimented military life, punctuated by serious combat, gave way almost overnight to a peaceful domestic life in quiet, small-town Woodland.

One of the hardest things, said Sandoval, was to come home and be greeted with flippant questions like “How many’d you kill?”

“It’s the wrong thing to ask,” said Sandoval. “If you’ve never had to pull the trigger, you don’t understand.”

And no story he could tell, no matter how detailed, could make a civilian understand. “I try to tell them what we went through,” said Sandoval, “and they’re like, ‘Yeah. Well, anyway.’”

Sandoval tells his stories partly to educate Americans. “I want people to know what the troops are going through. … We get paid so little, live in crappy conditions, do things you hate to do, but you do them.”

And yet, Sandoval claims to miss military life even now.

“You make a bond with these guys,” said Sandoval. “It’s awesome. … You fight like you’re with your brothers.”

That sense of camaraderie, absent in civilian life, can leave service members lonely when they return, which is especially difficult when they’ve seen serious combat.

Social workers who assist veterans understand. Michael Miracle of the Sacramento Vet Center, which specializes in mental-health treatment, explained that in combat, soldiers are judge, jury and executioner by benefit of the weapons they hold in their hands. They have a lot of power, they’re highly trained, and killing is sanctioned. “It changes you forever,” said Miracle.

In ironic travel photos, Sgt. Richard Sandoval tours the ruins of the ancient city of Babylon with his military rifle.

A Vietnam veteran himself, Miracle believes that heavy combat almost always leads to some form of post-traumatic stress, a condition that can show up months or even years after a war and is known in its severest form as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Self-imposed isolation is one potential side effect. Others include nightmares, unresolved anger and difficulty sleeping, all of which Sandoval complains of. Untreated, PTSD can become debilitating, leading veterans to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs, lose their jobs and chip away at stabilizing relationships.

Other issues are involved, as well. The veteran’s homecoming is complicated by the expectation that the world will reward him with parades and great job opportunities, awed by the conditions under which he fought and by what he sacrificed.

If this sounds like too high an expectation, especially for soldiers like Sandoval who returned whole from a war that’s lost much of its early public support, consider what Sandoval really did sacrifice, including peace of mind.

Like others returning home from Iraq to Sacramento, Sandoval was diagnosed with PTSD. There’s no Purple Heart to mark his emotional wounds, but they continue to challenge him almost a year after his return to the United States. Sandoval hasn’t slept well at all, has felt isolated from friends and family and is still bewildered by a mixture of emotions. In spite of his pride at making sergeant and his belief that he helped liberate a nation, Sandoval is still full of anger at the Iraqi troops who used civilians as shields. He’s still frightened in crowds, still prone to nightmares and still haunted by what he and other soldiers did in the name of duty.

According to family members, Sandoval has a “much shorter fuse” than he used to. And certain attitudes that developed in the Middle East have been hard to shake.

“I just have a hatred toward people of Muslim decent,” he said, clearly uncomfortable with his emotions. “I hate to say that.” Though he knows that local Muslims are not the enemy, that doesn’t stop him from viewing them in his neighborhood with anger and fear.

Because Sandoval’s duty was extended specifically so that he could participate in what was expected to be a short war, Sandoval was sent home after the official end date. He continues to support both the war effort and the president’s decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein, but he hated leaving other service members behind.

After wearing his chemical suit—a full-body protective suit with a gas mask on the hip—for 50 days in a row without a shower, driving through scenes of carnage and watching children beg for food, Sandoval, who’d served in Iraq for almost four months, left Iraq. He didn’t know how tense he’d been, said Sandoval, until he crossed into Kuwait and felt the weight of the world fall from his shoulders.

Family members met him at Camp Pendleton in Southern California, but already, Sandoval was having trouble adjusting.

“They didn’t recognize me,” said Sandoval, who was dark from the sun, wearing a mustache and more than 40 pounds lighter than when he’d joined the Marines. Excited to see his family and grateful to be safe, Sandoval still couldn’t accept his change in circumstance.

At Camp Pendleton, he was granted a week off, but he was too nervous to leave the base, much less travel home. His first fast-food meal, which he’d looked forward to, made him sick to his stomach, and the crowds at the mall unnerved him. Rather than enjoy his new freedom, Sandoval retreated, rooming with a friend.

“We stayed in our barracks a lot. We’d drink a lot, too,” said Sandoval. “He gave me that security.”

Sandoval went home with a combination of longing and fear. He wanted to be surrounded by family, but he wondered if they would look at him differently. The war wasn’t popular with everyone, Sandoval knew. Criticism of the war, especially from celebrities who felt it was waged for oil alone, painted a picture of the conflict that clashed with Sandoval’s view of himself as a liberator.

For years, Sandoval had relished being a Marine. Now, he was surprised by feelings of shame. He’d killed people, and no one would understand how or why.

In Woodland, his grandmother, Patricia Moore, warned the family that Sandoval might be a little different. They were not to ask too many difficult questions, but just let him settle in. Officially discharged on August 18, Sandoval arrived home with no parades and no ceremonies. His coming-home party was limited to family. Sandoval’s one public honor came the weekend after his return, on Memorial Day, when he put on his uniform and joined a group of citizens at a local cemetery. “All eyes were on me,” said Sandoval.

Ted Puntillo, a Veterans Affairs (VA) representative and Woodland City Council member, announced to the crowd that Sandoval had just returned from Iraq, and people came by to shake his hand and thank him for his service. The event organizers even dedicated a song to him.

Afterward, Puntillo helped Sandoval apply for assistance for injuries including hearing loss, stress damage to his knee joints from hiking with 60-pound packs, a stomach ulcer, and the PTSD diagnosed by the VA hospital at Mather Air Force Base in Sacramento. Once the PTSD diagnosis is confirmed by a second doctor, the $200 Sandoval receives monthly likely will be increased. Small gestures and the appreciative support of the VA community began Sandoval’s recovery.

Sgt. Richard Sandoval shows off his gear and the posters, money and other souvenirs he brought home to his grandmother’s house.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Sandoval made it home just in time to see his girlfriend, a shy 22-year-old named Melissa Hernandez, give birth to the couple’s first child, a daughter named Ricci. It was the second event that made him cry for joy. The first was his induction into the Marines.

But with a family came responsibilities, and Sandoval was suddenly an unemployed new dad whose most recent work experience consisted of fighting a war. Frustrated by his job opportunities, which consisted of the same warehouse work he did before joining the Marines, Sandoval grew impatient and anxious to go out all the time, though when he did, he couldn’t socialize freely. He still felt isolated.

Sandoval seemed reluctant to say it, but he did consider suicide in his first months home. When he talks about it now, he sounds bewildered by his own despair.

“I felt like I’d served my country for five years. Everything should come to me. … It’s not like that. You have to seek everything out,” he said.

Miracle said Sandoval’s domestic difficulties are common. The returning soldier has a honeymoon period, like the first few weeks Sandoval spent surrounded by his family. But eventually, the combat soldier may find himself losing ground, exhausted by nightmares, unable to work consistently, isolated from others and frustrated by the challenges of living an ordinary life. Reticent, he might live with symptoms for years without seeking treatment.

According to a recent study by the New England Journal of Medicine about soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, “of those whose responses were positive for a mental disorder [defined as major depression, generalized anxiety or PTSD], only 23 to 40 percent sought mental health care.”

Miracle thinks those numbers sound high. The eloquent, white-haired Vietnam vet has seen only 10 to 12 Iraq veterans seeking counseling, but he believes that number will increase in the next 12 to 18 months. Approximately 255,000 U.S. troops were deployed to Iraq, and many remain there. Other local service organizations also claim to have seen few returning vets, but they’re preparing for an influx of mentally and physically depleted soldiers. In preparation, representatives from the Red Cross, the Veterans Affiliated Council of Sacramento and others are preparing new programs to help wounded vets, especially amputees, integrate back into civilian life. This is markedly different, according to some Vietnam veterans, from the way they were treated upon returning home.

Puntillo explained that after Vietnam, the VA “went into a low period of service.” With little money and poor facilities, “they just didn’t want to hear about it.” But veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have access to compensation packages, pensions, medical facilities, counseling, prewar and postwar psychological testing and free or subsidized access to state-run universities for themselves and their children.

The greater access to support leads Miracle to suggest that we’ve learned not to blame the warrior, regardless of what we think of the war.

But there are some disturbing trends in Iraq that may lead to an increasing number of psychological problems in the future. Miracle referred to combat soldiers with related mental illnesses as “psychological casualties.”

In World War II, said Miracle, soldiers fought for the duration of the war, and mental illness occurred in 23 percent of those soldiers. In Korea, the number of “psychological casualties” dropped to 8 percent or 9 percent when the military realized that limiting soldiers’ tours of duty to a specified time helped them hang on until they could get home for treatment. In Vietnam, less than 2 percent succumbed, probably because soldiers knew they were coming home after one year.

In Iraq, the trend is reversing. Tours are being extended, often without much warning. Sandoval’s duty was extended by six months for the sake of the war, and his uncle, Richard Flores, just returned from a 13-month tour in Iraq.

“They told us six months,” said Flores. “It was a year.”

Flores, a Marine in the Vietnam War who served with the Army National Guard in Desert Storm and in Operation Iraqi Freedom, claimed that this latest conflict shook him up more than the last.

Flores called himself a “tough old bird” and answered questions with the same thoughtful warmth as Sandoval, though he was less inclined to examine his feelings. He was simply glad to be home, safe and able to hop into his pickup and drive.

“I’m trying to learn not to be on guard,” said Flores. “The first time, I was kind of hurting inside. Eventually, I became a civilian again.”

Flores said he suffers from nightmares, like Sandoval. But, unlike his nephew, Flores has become used to downplaying his emotional injuries.

With the help of antidepressants, the Veterans Affairs community, his girlfriend and his new daughter, Sandoval is embracing civilian life again.

Photo By Larry Dalton

“I got through all right,” he said. “Aches and pains. … I’m not as young as I was.”

In fact, Flores needs surgery for an injury he received while fixing a military vehicle. And he still watches every human movement very carefully, even while he’s just driving down the road, unable to let go of the feeling that he might be under attack.

In an Iraqi desert, sometime after nightfall, Sandoval noted from his position in the watchtower that the small group of Marines on the sand below him was doomed. Iraqi military vehicles, nothing more than flatbed trucks with mounted guns, came flowing over the dunes and poured down toward the Marines as if they were grains of sand falling from the dunes themselves, Sandoval explained.

Sandoval pointed his machine gun but realized that he was out of ammunition. He descended the tower, his feet leaden, and tried to run. He looked into the faces of Iraqi soldiers pouring forward on foot, and they were upon him.

That’s when Sandoval woke up. That’s always when he wakes up. It’s the same nightmare all the time, he said. He’s had it as recently as two weeks ago. He explained that he’s more afraid now when he thinks of what he went through in Iraq than he was at the time. But even on the nights when he doesn’t dream of losing the battle, Sandoval lies awake at night, worrying about jobs, money, the degree in sociology that he’s working toward and his family.

Although PTSD can be an insidious collection of symptoms, there are ways to fight it.

Sandoval’s grandmother, who watched other family members return from war, reminds her grandson to take opportunities to speak to people. If you’re in a bar, she advised him, and you meet someone you can relate to, just pour out your feelings.

Sandoval also takes Prozac to help with his anxiety, and he sees a counselor at Mather’s hospital approximately once a month, though he claims that he’s even guarded when talking to professionals. He doesn’t think a guy with a lot of book learning necessarily knows what it’s like to pull the trigger.

Miracle said that family support is one of the biggest factors in how veterans recover, and Sandoval claims that his family has been behind him 110 percent, which has helped. He added that he appreciated the honesty of his grandmother when she told him that he’d changed, that he’s quicker to anger now.

“She notices just a big change in my attitude,” said Sandoval. “I don’t really see it.”

“I can tell he’s a little different,” said Hernandez, sitting at Moore’s kitchen table and playing with Ricci.

Sandoval also is comforted by talking to other veterans who gather together in Woodland for benefits. There, Sandoval looks like a newbie, with his unlined face, his respectful demeanor and his quiet voice, and he feels like a kid.

Though he joined the Marines at 25, older than the usual recruit, and came home at 30, Sandoval attended a recent veterans’ fund-raiser and guessed that he was the only veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom in the Elks Lodge, which meant he was probably the youngest veteran there. Puntillo, who was organizing the event, confirmed as much.

But in conversations, there was some consistency and ceremony to the veterans’ thoughts about war. “If you fear day to day, you’re dead,” said one Vietnam veteran. “It’s all about training,” other men said. Sandoval admitted that he never talked about fear with his fellow Marines, not even when he was driving through a sandstorm, hearing Arabic spoken near his Humvee but unable to see anything. It was the one time he thought he wouldn’t make it home alive, but he didn’t tell a soul.

That stoicism sometimes damages personal relationships once soldiers return home. Almost categorically, the soldiers Miracle sees are suffering through marital conflicts.

Miracle explained that coming home can be dull and that taking on responsibilities again can be hard if the family surrounding you has already picked up the slack.

In spite of his family’s inability to grasp the difficulties of Sandoval’s combat experience, the combination of medication, counseling and support has improved his condition. Sandoval said his relationship with Melissa is now “awesome.” He’s working as a teacher’s aide with troubled kids at Lee Middle School and will continue with his own education in the fall.

But Sandoval seems unique in his ability to talk about his experience in detail, explore his emotional responses to it and, by doing so, deal with his mixed emotions. Even when he’s tried to talk to other Iraqi veterans, the conversations haven’t gone far. To date, Sandoval hasn’t discussed the war in any detail with his uncle, and he was reluctant to pursue a conversation with another recent returnee, the brother of one of his students. Sandoval ends up talking with older veterans instead, meeting with them over coffee or through events organized by the Veterans of Foreign Wars or the Marine Corps League.

Though Sandoval is looking forward to a career in counseling kids, and a house and a wedding to Hernandez, there’s always the threat that he’ll be sent back to Iraq. As a Marine, he’s served four-and-a-half years as an active-duty soldier, and he will serve a total of three-and-a-half more as a reservist; he can be called up anytime. He’s already been asked by the Marines to volunteer. He turned down the first offer, but the next time, he may not have a choice, which may affect his current opinion about the war.

“I think it’s time to bring our troops home,” he said, claiming that the Iraqi forces don’t fight fairly. “We’re fighting a war we’re not ready for.”