Original article no longer available
Ventura County Star
By Jannette Jauregui ( Contact)
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Marine puts his civilian life on hold
It started with a letter.
Carlos Lopez, 25, of Santa Paula returned home from his college classes in September 2007 to find a letter waiting for him. The sender? The U.S. Marines.
“I was astonished to see it,” Lopez said. “They said they were sending me back. I thought I had already served my time. I thought I was done.”
It had to be a mistake, Lopez figured. The young Marine was nearly two years into serving his four-year term in the Individual Ready Reserves. He had already served three tours in Iraq and was declared 30 percent disabled, having suffered a back injury from combat in Fallujah, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder from three tours on the front lines.
Why was he being sent back?
In June 2006, Lopez had returned from his third tour in Iraq, on the outskirts of Fallujah, where some of the heaviest fighting had taken place. By July 2006, his four years as an active Marine were up, and he received notice of his duties as a reserve.
“At the time I was ready to get my life back on track,” he said, noting plans to enroll in college and seek counseling for his PTSD. “A lot of things were messed up for me.”
His journey home became a battle of its own.
Love of his life
Lopez had dreamed of becoming a Marine since high school. He wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, who had served during World War II and the Vietnam War, respectively.
By July 2002, just one month after he graduated from high school, Lopez was on his way to basic training attached to Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines. Within a year, he was preparing for his first deployment in Umm Quasar.
“I was gung-ho about it all and ready to go,” he said in an interview before his latest deployment.
Before he left for his first tour, Lopez married the woman he calls the love of his life. “I knew it was hard for my wife when I left, but I never understood exactly how hard it was,” he said.
Lopez served as a machine gunner with the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit in Umm Quasar for seven months. He returned home in March 2004, and by December he was on his way to a second tour.
“We went to Indonesia first to help with the tsunami recovery and then left for the war from there,” he said.
This time his destination was Babel, where he continued his duties as a machine gunner.
“My first two tours really weren’t so bad,” he said. “Not when I think of the third.”
Lopez left for Fallujah in January 2006. “We lost a lot of Marines there and conditions were bad,” he said. “Those few months really took their toll on me.”
Hardships of service
They took their toll on his family as well. “Every morning my first instinct was to turn CNN on,” said Lopez’s mother, Anna Lopez. “All I wanted was just a glimpse of where he might be.”
George Lopez recalled the 3 a.m. telephone conversations with his son.
“I could hear how bad it was in his voice,” his father said. “He would tell me that he just couldn’t talk to his mom, and I knew it was because it was too hard. When I’d hang up, she’d ask why she didn’t get to talk to him, and I would just lie and tell her he had to go.”
It also took a toll on his wife. Lopez missed the birth of his son, Carlos Jr., in 2004 and his daughter, Sophia, in 2005. By the time he returned from Fallujah, his wife was ready for a divorce.
“It was hard to come back to my wife and kids in that situation,” he said. “My family just fell apart.”
At 23, Lopez was a father of two facing divorce. The struggles at home and the nightmares of war dogged him.
“One of my best friends was killed a week before we were supposed to come home,” he said. “We had just talked about sitting next to each other on the airplane ride home, and then he was gone. Between that and my marriage ending, I just felt like I was losing it.”
George Lopez was prepared for the hardships his son faced. “I knew I had to be there for him as much as I could,” George Lopez said. “I knew it was going to mean late-night talks, arguments and anger. But I had to be there.”
Ready to move on
Lopez first had to step back into a society he felt disconnected from. “I came back and didn’t feel like I fit in,” he said. “I would go places I used to visit regularly and feel like a stranger.”
Lopez was listed as 30 percent disabled, and with military benefits lined up, he was ready to move on.
“I wanted to go back to school and work on my degree,” he said of plans to study criminal justice. “I wanted to spend time with my kids and just try to be normal again.”
Between his disability check and the GI Bill, Lopez was bringing in just over $1,500 a month.
“We always had our door open to him,” George Lopez said. “We had a room here for him and a home. And all I could think about was how do the guys who don’t have a home survive? How do they get by on such limited resources? If Carlos had to fend for himself, $1,500 a month while going to school wouldn’t do it.”
He enrolled in classes at Ventura College in January 2007 and began completing his general education courses. He was also spending more time with his two children.
But the emotional healing process wasn’t as smooth. “I began going to counseling sessions with a doctor who was a Vietnam veteran,” he said. “I still didn’t really want to talk about it, but I figured if anyone could understand, he could.”
But it proved easier said than done, and Lopez stopped showing up after only a few appointments. “I was really messed up at the time, and I didn’t know where to begin,” he said.
He began taking antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications, which seemed to help.
“They worked for a while, but I saw a change in him that just wasn’t right,” George Lopez said.
‘I hit rock bottom’
And then came a night in June 2007 when everything changed. “He came out of his room with a book, and just gazed into it speaking nonsense,” George Lopez said. “Then all of a sudden he just started rapidly repeating the same words. It was bad.”
His father took Lopez to the emergency room, where doctors diagnosed an antidepressant overdose. “We just had to let him ride it out and come down off it,” George Lopez said.
When he did, his life took a turn for the better. “I hit rock bottom and was finally ready to admit it,” Lopez said.
During the next two months, Lopez began feeling better about his life. He continued with his classes at Ventura College and was on his way to completing 31 units. He even began to reconcile with his ex-wife. Everything seemed to be going right.
Then came the September 2007 letter.
In January, Lopez reported to the mobilization command center in Kansas City, Mo., to begin the screening process to return to active duty.
“We didn’t think it could be possible that he was going to be sent back,” George Lopez said. “We thought he was going to come back from Kansas City and tell us that someone dropped the ball. When he didn’t, we were shocked.”
‘A Marine like me’
Carlos Lopez, too, struggled with the latest deployment. “The hardest part for me is leaving my kids,” Lopez said. “My son knows about war. He says he wants to be a Marine like me. But my daughter has no clue, and I guess I like it better that way.”
On Aug. 8, Lopez deployed for his fourth tour. He wasn’t able to disclose where he was sent, but this time he is a corporal attached to the Combat Logistics Battalion 5, assigned as a gunner aboard a command control vehicle.
“We always talk about our friends that we lost (in previous deployments),” Lopez said. “That’s why we are going back. The Marine to my left and right are what it’s about. I’ve got to get them home.”
For Anna and George Lopez, it’s about seeing their son come home safe once again.
“We just take it day by day,” George Lopez said. “And some days are worse than others. He has come so far from when he first came home. And when he gets back, he’ll have to start over again.”