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Home Is Where the Hurt Is

Some military personnel, suffering from stress as they return from combat in Iraq, are struggling with family relationships.

June 25, 2003|Nora Zamichow and Tony Perry | Times Staff Writers

For half his 10-month marriage, Lance Cpl. Sean Rodriguez-Street slogged through the Iraqi desert and fired at enemy soldiers in Baghdad.

Then he came home, and trouble started.

He feels distracted and edgy. He finds himself being rude to his wife, Amanda. He wakes up long before she does, and in the loneliness of those hours, he misses the crisp certainty of military mornings: wake up, eat grub and check weapon.

Rodriguez-Street is among the veterans of the Iraq war who are discovering that short tempers and feelings of alienation may sour the sweetness of coming home.

Some returning servicemen are sleeping less and arguing more. Others are drinking heavily. One Marine told his fiancee he no longer wanted to have children. One senior Navy petty officer asked his wife for a divorce. Some suspect their spouses have been unfaithful. A number are experiencing flashbacks and other symptoms of combat stress.

In many cases, the problems are not severe. For example, Rodriguez-Street, a 21-year-old Camp Pendleton Marine, said there are advantages to being together again with his wife. "It's like being newlyweds all over."

Yet once the flag-waving and rounds of free beers subside, military personnel are feeling the friction of homecoming, and having to renegotiate roles in the family. One Marine planned to resume handling the family's finances, then realized his wife had done just fine. He gave her the bills and took over mowing the lawn.

"Most families get through it without long-term ill effects," said Shelley MacDermid, co-director of the Military Family Research Institute, a Pentagon-financed group at Purdue University. "You can't just flick a switch and say, 'Now, we're going back to the way it was.' There is no returning to normal, because the world has changed."

For a serviceman, shoehorning himself back into peacetime life entails an attitude adjustment. "You have to realize that the whole world did not stop while you were away," said Master Sgt. Nicholas Morin, 43, who served with a reconnaissance unit in Iraq. "The whole world can't feel sorry for you because you stood in harm's way."

Reentry to life at home typically takes as long as the individual's deployment, MacDermid said.

Some postwar carousing is expected. But the line between celebrating and running amok worries high-ranking military officials.

"My first concern is that the first night out they'll all get drunk ... and the second night they'll all beat up their wives or girlfriends," said Vice Adm. Tim LaFleur, commander of the Pacific naval surface fleet headquartered in Coronado. "We've already seen a rash of 'We won the war and we're going to celebrate' incidents."

After the 1991 Gulf War, divorce rates skyrocketed in communities surrounding large Army bases. Domestic violence increased in Marine communities. And about 15% of veterans experienced such combat-related difficulties as post-traumatic stress syndrome, depression, anxiety and alcohol or substance abuse. (For Vietnam vets, the toll reached nearly 50%.)

Whether a serviceman suffers psychological fallout from battle can depend on how close he was to combat and the cohesiveness of his unit, said Cmdr. Jack Pierce, a psychiatrist at the Marine Corps' Health Services Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Pierce thinks about 25% of those returning from Operation Iraqi Freedom will suffer difficulties -- a higher rate than returnees from the 1991 Gulf War, who did not deal with as much ground combat.

Lance Cpl. O.J. John B. Santa Maria, 21, a machine gunner, was badly wounded in his right arm and shoulder during a firefight in Nasiriyah in central Iraq. After four surgeries, Santa Maria has not regained full use of his arm and suffers constant pain. He cannot sleep without prescription drugs, and he's plagued by flashbacks. He's been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Several times a day, he relives the moments before he was wounded. He sees himself reloading his machine gun. He hears a loud explosion that seemed to rock the Humvee. He realizes he cannot move his right arm and discovers that it's dangling as blood pours down his side. He sees himself stagger out of the vehicle, yelling: "I've been hit! I've been hit!"

"I thought I was going to die," said Santa Maria, who moved to Daly City, Calif., from the Philippines with his father after graduating from high school. President Bush granted U.S. citizenship to Santa Maria in a ceremony at Bethesda Naval hospital. In coming months, the Marines will evaluate whether Santa Maria can remain in the Corps. Meanwhile, he undergoes physical therapy, though doctors have said it's unlikely he'll regain full use of his arm.

"I've been feeling down," said Santa Maria, who had hoped to become a police officer. "I just feel down. Sometimes I don't know what to do."

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