By James Rodrigo Retana
body count in Iraq: 1050 soldiers dead and counting. Numbers
of American civilians are being kidnapped and beheaded by
terrorists and the shocking video is available on the Internet.
I recall feeling an overwhelming sense of dread and numbness
staring at the television set watching our troops march
to Baghdad and taking in every detail of soldiers' heroic
acts and deaths on desert battle fields. I felt compassion
watching the tear filled eyes of parents as they looked
away from the camera and told a stoic reporter why their
loved one joined the military or took a high paying job
in the war zone. One father set a military van on fire after
he was told his Marine son had died in action. Sadness and
outrage. War is hell.
over time, as I view the daily war feeds from Iraq, the
gun battles in the streets of Najaf become less heart pounding.
The constant images of the bodies of suicide bombing victims
lying in pools of blood become less gut wrenching. Slowly,
I feel my numbness to war wearing off, seeping away. As
the war looms on, I read the names and ranks of young soldiers
scroll across my television screen at the end of the news
broadcast like cast credits at the end of an action movie.
But today my senses are alert with every new political development.
My heart races as I raise the volume on the TV, watching
every new battle. I count every gunshot. I study every soldier's
face flashed on the screen. Dead or alive. You see, the
war has become personal. My brother, Staff Sergeant John
J. Retana, and members of his Indiana National Guard Unit
have been sent to Afghanistan.
eighteen John enlisted in the Army and served a tour of
duty in Vietnam earning a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.
He earned the Bronze Star for "walking point" when no one
else wanted to do it. "My buddy and I took turns. If we
didn't our platoon could not move," John said. His most
vivid memory of war in the jungles was "Seeing my buddies
lose their lives." After moving to Indiana he joined the
National Guard and spent the required time in the service
to retire, however he requested to be sent to war. I told
John that at age 53 he should retire, that he had nothing
to prove to anyone. He did not need another tour of duty.
"I can't let those young kids go over there by themselves."
John explained in a gruff tune that was all business. "I've
been shot at before. I will be able to help them stay alive."
He told me this time he will be more cautious and levels
with me that his biggest fear is not coming back, but "If
you let yourself get distracted by thoughts of getting killed,
well guess what…"
far as discrimination in the military he says it is the
same as in civilian life, except because of his rank, the
Mexican jokes are not made in front of him. His fellow soldiers
think he is either Italian or from the Middle East, until
he corrects them by saying, "Yeah from Middle East L.A."
John tells me that war protestors have no effect on him,
because it was nothing like the opposition to the Vietnam
War. I recall picking him up at LAX when he returned home
from Nam. In his army green uniform, looking older and out
of place, his young eyes had seen too much. We shook hands
and I gave him an abrazo, but he stood stiffly...not wanting
to get too close - lessons of war. There were no bands playing
or flag waving crowds, no banners proclaiming, "Thanks For
Serving." We walked quietly to our car and drove home the
way I imagine thousands of other returning vets did.
But that was another time…another war.
remember my college days of listening to war protesters
and names like "baby killers" being hurled at our soldiers
as I sat and read letters from John about ducking Viet
Cong sniper fire and him asking me if I had turned into
a "hippie." But his time it is different. Even though
there is much debate…most everyone supports our troops
now. And now there is new controversy over soldiers being
enticed to enlist in the military with a promise of US
citizenship, and some dying before they can receive it.
In his first letter from Afghanistan he asks for toothpaste,
shampoo, chicharones, Fritos corn chips, hard candy and
gum. Simple things. This tells me that he does not want
to be forgotten. I load a box of the stuff and send it
off. He writes that there is the sound of mines exploding
in the distance about three times a day. Other than that
he feels safe, "Don't worry." But I am counting every
gunshot when I watch the news… and studying the faces
of fallen soldiers. Some times when I'm sleeping I can
hear the deafening sound of mines exploding…one, two,
Rodrigo Retana is a staff writer for Xispas
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