The War in Iraq Five Years Later
updated 03/31/2008 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 03/31/2008 AT 01:00 AM EDT
TOMMY RIEMAN AND ROB McALLISTER
When they first met on a military base in Germany in 2002, Tommy Rieman and Rob McAllister thought they had little in common. Rieman, then 22, had joined the Army at 17 to escape his Kentucky town; McAllister, 30, had been a part-time student in Amherst, Mass., until 9/11 moved him to join up. "We came from different worlds," says Rieman. "But we both loved football."
That was just the beginning. Sharing a smart-alecky sense of humor, the two bonded over PlayStation golf and DVDs like Caddyshack and Office Space. McAllister, who played lacrosse, taught Rieman the sport.
The fun and games ended when the men deployed to Iraq on March 19, 2003. Part of an intelligence-gathering team, they dug a ditch, hunkered down and spied. "Imagine six guys in a hole the size of a desk for seven days," says Rieman, 27. "You become pretty close."
That trust would be tested nine months later. During a patrol, insurgents fired rocket-propelled grenades at their convoy, sending shrapnel into their legs and backs and McAllister's stomach. "I'd never felt pain like that," says McAllister, who was in the turret manning the group's .50-cal. machine gun. Realizing McAllister was exposed to enemy fire, Rieman threw his body in front of his friend—and felt bullets pierce his chest and arm. Half an hour later, all eight men escaped, battered but alive. "A guy takes a couple bullets for you—I don't even know how to put into words what that means," says McAllister, 36. (Rieman, awarded a Silver Star, was flown to Germany for treatment and honorably discharged; McAllister, who got a Bronze Star with Valor, finished his remaining year of service.)
Both men recovered from their physical injuries—but struggled to adjust to life back home. After two years "pretending everything was all right," McAllister sought help at the VA and is being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder. Rieman, married with a 2-year-old and a baby girl, also grapples with memories. "You go through this crazy experience," he says. "Nobody understands you."
Nobody, that is, except for a buddy who went through it too. Speaking by telephone twice a week and during an annual trip to Florida, Rieman and McAllister, who is married and has an infant son, have helped each other make sense of it all. "It's not any one thing he has said—he was just there," says Rieman, who works for an Army-supported video game company. Adds McAllister: "We don't talk about our feelings. But we both understand."
HER YEAR FOR LIVING
Ray and Karen Mendoza fell in love at Ohio State University. They wed in 1992 and had two children, daughter Kiana, now 14, and son Alek, 10. Joining the Marines in 1995, Ray rose to the rank of major; by 37, he commanded several hundred riflemen in the elite Echo Company. He deployed to Iraq twice, in June 2003 and July 2005. "Our dream," says Karen, 40, "was to travel and watch our kids grow." On Nov. 14, 2005, that dream ended.
KAREN: I can still hear the doorbell. I saw three men in dark green uniforms. When they entered the foyer, a lieutenant colonel spoke: "Mrs. Mendoza, I'm sorry to inform you that your husband was killed conducting a mission late last night."
I dropped to my knees and screamed. "No, not my Ray! Not my baby!" He'd been preparing to lead a raid on the Iraqi-Syrian border. He was walking on a hill when he set off an IED [improvised explosive device]. Other Marines had walked right over it.
I wanted his wedding ring—the only piece of me he'd had in Iraq. I thought I'd never see it again. But when the company cleared out, a young Marine had found part of Ray's hand and arm. The ring was on his finger. The Marine wore it on a cord around his neck until he could give it back to me.
For months I slept only a few hours a night. I'd put on my nightgown, tuck my kids in bed. Then I'd sit on the porch and remember Ray trying to make California and Iraq seem closer, saying we watched the same moon.
I took a year to move off base. I needed time for my children to adjust to not having a father. Kiana became protective; when she saw me sob she'd say, "Daddy wouldn't want you crying." And Alek would ask, "Is Daddy lonely in heaven? Is he hungry?"
I found my new house near San Diego—on Craigslist, for God's sake. It's a three-bedroom cottage with perky yellow paint, a half block from the beach. Every morning, Alek makes me coffee; he has hot chocolate and together we watch the waves. Living by the sea has filled me with a sense of peace. I feel on the verge of being happy. I work as an account rep for an athletic apparel line. Kiana is in ninth grade at Blair Academy, an East Coast prep school where her father was a student. Alek is in fifth grade and has started tackle football.
I call this the Year for Living. I go out twice a week, to see a movie or to dinner. And while I'm not looking to replace Ray, I know I deserve to be loved again. The title and role I was encouraged to uphold—a Marine Corps wife—will always be a big part of my life. And it fills me with pride. But I don't want people to think of me as a picture in a newspaper—a widow standing next to a flag-draped coffin. Military widows live. And we go on.
A MARINE GROWS UP
Growing up poor in Jeanerette, La., Ranaldo Sereal watched his mom, Denise, struggle with recurrent cancer. "I saw her cry every night," says Sereal, now 26. "I didn't want to be a failure in her eyes."
In March 2004, then-22-year-old Marine Cpl. Sereal got a chance to prove himself—orders to Fallujah. "I was nervous," he recalls. "I'd never been shot at, and I'd heard stories of people freezing up. I didn't want to be that guy."
He never was. Over three deployments that included hellish, house-to-house combat, the stoic radio operator earned 13 commendations, including a Bronze Star with Valor. That last came after a Nov. 19, 2006, battle in Ramadi. While sending radio updates, Sereal shot back at insurgents through a living-room window, providing life-saving cover for an Iraqi family and several injured comrades.
And so a rookie became a leader. Now an instructor at Marine Reserve headquarters in New Orleans, Sereal is enjoying newlywed life with former Marine Terra Young. The onetime college football player goes back to Jeanerette twice a month to visit his mother—but the self-doubt of his younger days is long gone. "Now," he says, "I'm not too scared of anything."
A NEW KIND OF STRENGTH
Retired Army Cpl. J.R. Martinez, 24, used to coast through life on his looks. Then the former high school football star from Dalton, Ga., went to Iraq.
In middle school, I was a "pretty boy." Doing what I could to have girls say, "Wow, look at him." My look? It started in the morning with the face. Wash it. Make sure my hair was right. I used gel—every break, I'd go to the bathroom, put water on my hands and give it a little more shine. I wore polo shirts, yellow or aqua, ironed. And jeans with a crease down the middle. I'd stand, prop a leg up, talk to friends; girls would pass by and smile. There were seniors I hit on and they hit back. A ninth-grader!
After high school, I joined the Army; I wanted to be more independent and give back to the country that had given so much to me. I deployed to Iraq in March 2003. On April 5 I was driving a Hummer to escort a convoy toward Baghdad. My left front tire ran over a land mine. It threw three guys out of the vehicle. I got trapped inside. I remember not being able to breathe. I thought, "This is where my life ends." I screamed, "Get me out of here!" I could see my hands burning. I tried to block my face. But it started to burn.
My sergeant pulled me out and saved my life. Another guy ran up, cradled my head and then started rocking me. They flew me to Landstuhl, Germany, for emergency surgery, then to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. When they brought me a mirror I started to cry: "I don't want to live like this! I'd be better off dead." My mother walked in. "Look at me," I said. She said it was going to be okay. I went four days without eating or talking.
In June I went home to Dalton for a month. I was in a bad stage—my face was black from burns. But there was this big parade; people on the side of the road held signs saying "We love you, J.R." The restaurants had my name up there instead of the specials. My fear in the hospital was how I'd be judged in public. That great homecoming was key to where I am today.
I've had 32 operations. Back at Brooke Army Medical Center one day, a nurse asked me to visit another patient. His lights were off, his curtain closed. We just talked about regular stuff. I wasn't being a counselor; I was just being me. And when I walked out, I called my mom and said, "Mom, I know why. I was kept in this world to help other people."
I got involved with the Coalition to Salute America's Heroes [a non-profit that helps severely wounded and disabled veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars]. Now I'm a national spokesman, on the road several times a month to raise awareness. It's amazing they chose me to be this voice.
I've dated three girls since the accident; one was a serious relationship. Since the injury I've had girls tell me, "You're funny, your personality's cool." I've been told I have a beautiful smile. When I see a girl, I smile a lot. But I have so much more to offer now. When I look at myself in the mirror now, I see a pretty attractive guy. I feel good. I feel cocky again. I'm proud of my scars and stripes.
A FAMILY'S DOUBLE LOSS
JEFF AND PEGGY HUBBARD
Of the nearly 4,000 service members who have died in Iraq, every one is someone's son or daughter. But two—Jared and Nathan Hubbard—were brothers whose parents, Jeff and Peggy, bear an unimaginable burden of grief. "I used to think, 'Goodness, what a run of luck—four kids, all healthy,'" says Jeff, 56, a retired Clovis, Calif., police officer. "But when it turns on you, it turns on you."
Wed at 19, the Hubbards welcomed, in short order, Jason and Heidi, then "decided we wanted another," says Peggy, 55. "We liked pairs, so we had two." Jared was strong and athletic; Nathan, three years younger, was funny and rebellious. Still, says Peggy, "they were unbelievably close."
After high school, Jared longed for adventure. He found it after 9/11, joining the Marines with pal Jeremiah Baro and shipping out to Iraq for the first of two tours in February 2003. "I didn't want him to be an infantryman," Jeff says of Jared, who rose to the rank of lance corporal, part of an elite sniper team. "But he said, 'It's a war.'"
On Nov. 4, 2004 a roadside bomb in Ramadi killed Jared, 22, and Baro, 21. The Hubbards were still deep in mourning when their surviving sons hatched a plan: To honor their brother, they'd join the Army. "They didn't know, but I spent many nights crying," Peggy says. Jason, a narcotics cop with a wife and infant son, and Nathan, at loose ends after high school, enlisted; in the summer of 2006, they went to the war zone with the same combat unit. "Every Wednesday, I'd get a call from Nathan," Peggy says.
On Aug. 22, 21-year-old Cpl. Nathan Hubbard died with 13 others in a Black Hawk helicopter crash, the result of mechanical trouble. (Pulled from the combat zone, Army Spec. Jason, 33, took an honorable discharge and has resumed his job at the Fresno County Sheriff's Office.)
While no statistics are kept, the Dept. of Defense knows of no other families that have lost two children in Iraq. The Hubbards respect their sons' decisions to serve. "They wanted to help people in a terrible situation," Jeff says. "I get a certain comfort from that." Still, the couple grope for distraction. Jeff works part-time in city code enforcement; at night, he buries himself in computer solitaire. "I have to concentrate very hard," he says. Peggy hasn't returned to work as a floral manager; one moment, she'll be chatting with a friend, the next, "I'll see and hear my sons. Everything reminds me." She keeps Jared's Bronze Star and Nathan's Purple Heart in a brightly lit dining room cabinet. "As time goes on, little pieces of happiness come back," Peggy says. "We try to put on smiling faces, but you cannot escape the fact that the faces you should see, you won't see."