Thursday, March 3, 2005
Sgt. José Guadalupe Fausto always knew he wanted to be a soldier.
Even before he came to the US, back when he lived with his parents and seven siblings in Ameza, a small town in Jalisco, Mexico, he dreamed about joining the military.
Fausto and his parents migrated to the US in 1990, when he was 16. He began to work in the fields, picking broccoli and asparagus to help pay the bills for the room that the three rented in Gonzales. His younger brothers and sisters stayed behind in Ameza for a year until the family could save up enough money to bring them across the border.
After the family was whole again, the Faustos lived the way many recent immigrants in the Salinas Valley live—they worked various jobs during the week and sent the kids to school. They went to church every Sunday. Life was pretty good for them, compared to what they had in Jalisco.
Fausto worked in the fields, but he wanted to continue his education. He had attended high school in Mexico, and he wanted to earn a diploma.
“I promised my parents, in order to continue my education, I would continue working so that I could help pay,” he says.
His parents, Manuel and Luz Fausto, okayed the plan, and José began attending Gonzales Adult School. He learned English, and began working on his immigration paperwork. Upon getting his high school diploma, he enrolled at Hartnell College, and then at CSU Monterey Bay, where he earned a bilingual teaching degree.
During these years, however, he still had to make money to help put food on the table for his family. He picked vegetables, and worked as a pizza delivery man and a cook, a security guard and a teacher’s aide.
“Sometimes I worked three different jobs to make it,” Fausto says. “I always worked my way through. I don’t want anything for free. I want to earn it.”
Fausto worked late nights and was in class by 8am. He spent a lot of time on the freeway—where he first spotted his future wife. She was also studying to be a teacher, and like Fausto, would carpool to Hartnell with a friend. Fausto says he had often noticed a pretty brunette driving a white Buick who seemed to be on the same freeway schedule as he. One day, her car got stolen. (Fausto says that back in the early ‘90s, Buick Regals seemed to be the ride of choice among gangsters.) And so he spotted Raquel Aguilar sitting by herself in the commons area on campus, looking sad. Fausto approached her and asked what was wrong. Then he asked her out to lunch and she accepted his offer.
“I was barely making money,” he remembers. “I really only had enough money for me to go out to lunch.” But being a gentleman, he refused to eat—he said he wasn’t hungry. She kept asking, “Are you sure you don’t want anything?” Finally, he ate a French fry.
In 1995, the two were married at Saint Theodore’s Catholic Church in Gonzales. It wasn’t until a year after the two were married that José told Raquel why he didn’t eat lunch that day.
Two years later, Fausto joined an Army reserve unit, the Marina-based 211 Transportation Company. A year later he became a US citizen.
• • •
Fausto is 31. He works as a resource teacher at Main Street Middle School in Soledad. He wears a mustache and his black hair is cut short. He and Raquel, an elementary school teacher, own a big house in Diamond Ridge, a new subdivision in Soledad, where they live with their three kids. Four of his siblings live in the neighborhood, and his parents are still in Gonzales.
Most Saturdays, when the whole family is in town, they all gather at the Faustos’ house. The alarm beeps as college-age sisters walk through the doors, looking forward to a home-cooked meal. Third-generation Faustos sit on a couch in the living room and watch A Shark’s Tale on a big screen TV with Grandpa Manuel. Grandma Luz prepares rice, beans, salsa and potato salad in the kitchen, and carne asada simmers on the grill in the backyard.
José and Raquel sit on a brown striped overstuffed couch in the front room. Their three children—eight-year-old Jazmin, six-year-old Junior, and 17-month-old Viviana—alternately climb on top of them and burrow into their laps, while the two flip through photos shot in Iraq and Kuwait, showing Fausto in desert camouflage, driving a cargo truck, standing in the sand with fellow soldiers, holding a small Mexican flag while standing in front of a huge American flag.
Raquel Fausto remembers talking with her husband about his decision to enlist.
“I told him, ‘If that’s your dream, then go ahead,’” she recalls. “‘Do it.’ But I didn’t really think about the implications.”
She didn’t think that five years later, her husband might be sent to fight a war in Iraq, might see his tour of duty extended twice, might miss the birth of his youngest daughter.
1997 was a year of relative peace. It was another good year for the US economy. War didn’t loom on the horizon. Joining the military sounded safe.
Indeed, times were slow for the transportation company. Fausto served as a senior driver and Heavy Equipment Transport System (HETS) operator. The 211th completed regular drills one weekend a month, and two weeks a year. It was the only action the cargo truck drivers saw. But still, Fausto says, “I always did my best.”
“I knew that the US was always going out, helping other counties,” he says. “I had an idea that we would probably be deployed for that reason. Not to fight a war.”
He got the call the day after Christmas, 2002. At the time, Fausto was in Mexico with his family for the holidays. They had planned to spend a month in Jalisco. They had only been there a week, and had recently found out that they were expecting their third child.
The commanding officer told Fausto that the 211 Transportation Company would be deployed as a unit.
“I was in shock,” Raquel says. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Reality set in when the family returned to Soledad on Dec. 27, and Fausto reported for duty. The 235-soldier unit shipped out to Fort Bliss, Texas, before arriving at Camp Patriot, a Navy base in Kuwait, on June 1, 2003.
• • •
“Don’t make it sound like I am a hero,” Fausto tells me on the phone. “The only thing I did was my job. Nothing special. I was not in a combat unit. I only did what I had to do. Whatever I did over there, it was just my job. Nothing special.”
Moving between Kuwait and Iraq, Fausto’s unit provided security for the base and for civilian drivers, transported ammunition and other vehicles, and ran missions between cities.
The first summer he spent in the Middle East saw suffocating temperatures reaching upwards of 135 degrees. When the unit wasn’t sweltering from the heat, they were often blinded by sudden sandstorms. Fausto says the 211th didn’t come across any roadside bombs or angry Iraqis with weapons.
“Thank God, no,” he says.
Although the soldiers repeatedly heard warnings about the threat level rising, Fausto says he didn’t worry too much.
“As a soldier, you need to be alert all the time, but I never felt too threatened.”
The military police warned the drivers not to throw water or food from the trucks to the begging hands of Iraqi kids waiting along the road. Sometimes the solders obeyed. More often, however, they couldn’t ignore the hungry children, Fausto says.
The reservists didn’t always get their promised days off because the unit was stretched so thin. Several of the flak vests didn’t have steel plates sewed into the cloth, rendering them useless. Some of the Humvees, trucks and tanks broke. Replacements parts didn’t come fast enough, if they arrived at all.
It was hot and trying, but at least, the soldiers thought, the mission would be short. Fausto’s company replaced an active duty unit that had been in Iraq six months, and they figured their tour would be similar in length.
“We assumed we’d be home for Christmas,” he says.
They assumed wrong: “In November, we found out that we shouldn’t count on coming back to the States in December.”
The reservists—teachers, bus drivers, mail carriers, carpenters, secretaries and recent high school grads—learned that the Pentagon had extended their stay in Iraq until June 2004.
Fausto served as a section sergeant, in charge of a few dozen soldiers. Most of them were young—18- and 19-year-olds who celebrated their birthdays in the dry desert. The younger soldiers complained to Fausto and asked him to explain what they were doing in Iraq anyway. For the sake of the other men and women in uniform, Fausto says, he tried to stay positive and act upbeat. But he could be honest with his feelings when he called home to talk to his wife.
“We know we’re soldiers,” Fausto says. “We know we have a job to do when we’re deployed. But this long deployment—it’s a killer.”
“It was disappointment all the time,” Raquel says. “He would feel so frustrated over there.”
• • •
In Soledad, Raquel Fausto felt frustrated, too.
She says there wasn’t a Family Readiness Group supporting spouses and kids because the 211 is Army Reserve, not an active duty unit.
“He told me great stories about the military, how families take care of each other,” she says. “I don’t believe it. They didn’t support us. They left us all alone.” Raquel has strong features: high cheekbones, a straight nose, sad brown eyes and a calm, soothing presence. “When he found out he was going to be deployed, I found out I was pregnant,” she recalls.
She tried to explain to her other two kids why their Daddy had to go away to fight the bad guys. She learned to live without her husband—raising her two kids and acting as the head of the household. She also worked, teaching kindergarten at Gonzales Elementary School.
On top of that, she says, the little tasks that her husband used to take care of—like mowing the lawn or changing the oil in the car—now fell to her. Her family was happy to pitch in, but Raquel says she felt frustrated having to ask for help.
The first six months of José Fausto’s deployment, while he trained at Fort Bliss, were hard, Raquel says. But then, once he got to Iraq and she would see battle images on the news or hear the body count on radio, she felt like she might break.
“I couldn’t watch the news anymore,” she says. “I had to turn off the TV.”
Although she was frustrated and sad, she didn’t protest the war because “it would have been too painful,” she says. “I just couldn’t. It hurt too much. I’m a quiet person. I kept it all inside.” Plus, she says, she was worried that the stress may cause complications with her pregnancy.
As September approached, Fausto requested a leave so he could be with his wife while she gave birth. The Army denied it. Tears roll down Raquel’s face when she talks about going into labor without her husband by her side. At 5am on Sept. 2, Raquel called Fausto to describe his baby girl to him. The other two children—especially Junior—couldn’t understand why their dad wasn’t at home.
Junior repeatedly asked his dad why he left. Fausto told his son that serving his country was his job, as a soldier. Junior told his dad, “No. Come over here and teach me to playsoccer.”
• • •
In late April 2004, Raquel got a call from her husband. He told her that the Pentagon had extended the Army reservists’ stay by another 120 days—the company’s second extension. Faust wouldn’t be home until September, 2004—a year and nine months after his deployment.
Shortly after learning that José wouldn’t be coming home soon, his mother and sister decided they couldn’t quietly watch the war from home anymore.
Salinas Valley soldiers are largely Latino and reservists, and Fausto’s mother, Luz, whom her son describes as “outspoken,” says she knows a lot of them.
She takes a break from the kitchen, and sits down in the front room of her son’s Soledad home. She’s been cooking all morning, and she wears a black-and-tan tiger-print dress with a gold brooch and necklace and black pumps.
Luz used to organize farmworker families in Gonzales and the rest of the Valley, so she decided to take a similar approach to rallying Latino military families in and around Salinas. Luz and her second daughter, Elizabeth, who works for the county’s migrant education program, began making phone calls to other families. They wanted to make their presence known, to build support and bring their soldiers home as quickly as possible.
“When he was first deployed, we weren’t happy, but it was something he chose to do,” Elizabeth says. “No one put a gun to his head and made him join.”
But by April 2004, more than a year after President Bush flew off a US aircraft carrier and announced military victory in Iraq, the two women say, they had had enough.
Luz called US Rep. Sam Farr. She told him that her son’s tour had been extended twice, and that many other Latino reservists who live in his Congressional district were in the same situation. Farr, who opposed the war, agreed to help organize a community forum with Salinas Valley military families in June 2004.
“I told him that, as a mother, I felt that I didn’t have a voice,” Luz says. “My government wasn’t listening to me, or the other voices from the pueblo. I didn’t hear anything about when he would come home, so I was always prepared for the horrible news that he had died.”
Initially, dozens of Latino families agreed to attend the town hall meeting. In June, only two showed up. The rest of the 60 or so attendees were white.
Afterwards, Luz Fausto called parents and asked what had happened. They told her that they were worried that if they attended the forum, or an anti-war rally, or even a support group for families, then their children would see their tours of duty extended yet again, or would be assigned to more dangerous missions. “Others asked, ‘What’s the use?’” Luz says. “My thought is, if our kids aren’t important, what is?”
• • •
On Sept. 10, 2004, José Fausto came home. The Army’s 63rd Regional Readiness Command hosted a reception for the reservists at the Hyatt in downtown San Jose. The entire Fausto clan, all 30 or so, drove down, carrying welcome home signs and waiting to see their soldier.
“I was just running, looking for my baby,” José remembers. “Of course, I was looking for everybody, but I had to see my baby daughter. It was such a relief to be home. I was happy—I don’t know how else to describe it.”
Fausto’s been home five months now. Sitting on a soft couch, thousands of miles away from the war zone, he says he doesn’t know if the Pentagon will send him to Iraq again. He doesn’t want to go back. But if he’s called up to serve, he says, he will.
“We have to do our job,” he says. “Once the general says this is what we’ve got to do, we do it. It’s my duty.”
But, he adds, as a civilian teacher, he didn’t agree with the war. He still doesn’t.
“We all knew that Iraq was not a threat to the US. It took 21 days to reach Baghdad. C’mon, think about it. If Saddam Hussein had the weapons the US thought he did, we would not have reached Baghdad in 21 days.”
Fausto says he’s seen photographs shot by other soldiers of dead Iraqis and dead Americans. The Pentagon prohibits military men and women from capturing such images, but Fausto believes that everyone who is thinking about enlisting should see them, just to get a glimpse of the reality of war.
“As a solider, this could happen to you,” he says. “War is war and there will be casualties on both sides. If you’re going to join, you need to do it because you want to serve your country. Don’t join to get money for college.”
Fausto’s family is still getting used to having him around all the time. It was hard to be apart, in the beginning, Raquel says. “But then, we got used to him not being here, and just talking to him on the phone.”
He spent his first night back sleeping on the floor, because baby Viviana took over his side of the bed.
“It’s still not easy,” Fausto says. “Even now, the kids run to her,” he says, gesturing toward his wife. Viviana doesn’t always willingly take to her father’s arms, and even Junior seems to be getting to know his dad all over again. He used to tag along everywhere Fausto went. Now he hesitates. He’s worried his dad might go away again.
Junior used to imitate everything about his dad. “He tells
me now,” Fausto says, “Dad, I don’t want to be a