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Suicides shatter amnesia over Falklands

Twenty-five years after Argentina capitulated to Britain, the war for the isolated islands remains an open sore.

June 03, 2007|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

BUENOS AIRES — Walter Gonzalez hawks military pins, key chains and ribbons from a makeshift stand at a bustling plaza, peddling memories of a war few care to remember.

"When we returned from there, we remained in the shadows," says Gonzalez, a fatigue-clad, shaggy-haired survivor of battle and years of postwar therapy. "No one wanted to talk about it."

A quarter of a century after the Argentine capitulation to Britain on June 14, 1982, on the isolated Falkland Islands, known here as the Malvinas, the conflict remains an open sore.

The postwar suicides of at least 352 Falklands veterans, compared with the 649 Argentines lost in battle, have exposed the tormented plight of the former combatants.

Like Vietnam veterans a decade before them, the 14,000 or so Argentine soldiers, mostly poor and working-class conscripts with little education, were associated with an ignominious defeat and an unpopular government.

The 74-day conflict, in which Argentina's reviled military regime mistakenly counted on U.S. support for its assertion of a 149-year-old claim to the British territory, was the beginning of the end for the junta. A year later, the government returned to civilian rule.

As the generals hired lawyers to deflect human rights charges, distraught former soldiers who went to war mostly as teenagers were left to pick up the pieces of lives shattered after confronting combat, death and defeat.

"Coming home, it was hard for us to show we weren't the same as the dictatorship," recalled Gabriel Sagastume, 45, an ex-infantryman who was posted to the zone known as Wireless Ridge. "We weren't professional soldiers who chose war. We went to Malvinas because we were ordered there."

In the U.S., the ambiguity of the Vietnam experience became a fixture of society and culture, a theme explored in films, books, talk shows and classrooms. But in Argentina, the Falklands debacle faded amid a kind of collective amnesia, recalled in sober anniversary tributes but seldom explored in depth.

An Argentine military in full cover-up mode even forced returning troops to sign documents barring them from talking about the conflict. Veterans feared that speaking out could cost them the limited benefits they had. They became outcasts, stereotyped as mentally unstable, violent and unemployable, pathetic figures in tattered olive-green jackets hawking trinkets to commuters, one step up from begging.

"We were left at age 18 with the experience of death on top of us," said Edgardo Esteban, 43, a Falklands veteran whose autobiographical novel, "Iluminados por el Fuego" ("Blessed by Fire" in its English translation), was made into an award-winning feature film last year and tentatively opened new national discussions about the calamity.

The film begins with the attempted suicide of a Malvinas veteran, then traces the fictional protagonist's voyage of self-discovery back to the Falklands as a soldier-turned-journalist.

"For so many years the personal histories of the Malvinas were concealed, one couldn't speak. It was better to hide the pain," Esteban said. "The book became a way to avoid suffocating. We were left with a great scar on our bodies and souls that will stay there until our final days."

Prodded by protests, the government has increased subsidies for veterans in recent years.

Gonzalez eventually found a job as a school porter after 17 years of peddling war mementos on trains; he now opens his stand only on weekends. But the sense of abandonment still lingers.

The truth of the Falklands foray, veterans say, was the dispatch of poorly trained, ill-equipped draftees to a freezing outpost with more sheep than people, where weapons malfunctioned, ammunition was inadequate, commanders were abusive and food was scarce.

The memory of two soldiers carrying a starving comrade haunts Gonzalez more than the fierce and chaotic days of bombardment and combat near the hamlet of Goose Green on May 28-29, 1982.

"The guy was nothing but a sack of bones because he was so hungry," recalled Gonzalez, now a father of 10. "They took him to the rear, and he died of hunger, God rest his soul. I carry that image inside me."

For Gonzalez, six years of outpatient psychiatric treatment followed his return. The sound of aircraft drove him to a panic.

"One day I fell asleep on a bus and an airplane passed and I dived under the seats," he said, taking a break from his souvenir stand, momentarily attended by his daughters, Malvina, 11, and Soledad, 13, who were given the Spanish names for the two major islands in the Falklands archipelago. "Now I don't drink, I don't smoke, I live a clean life."

Apart from treatment, he and others say, the tightknit network of veterans groups provided essential support -- comrades with whom to share the post-traumatic stress.

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