Thursday, May 17, 2007
With his machine gun drawn, Lance Cpl. Adrian Jimenez searched from room to room. Sweat soaked into his undershirt as he scanned the brick-and-concrete structure—nobody was inside. Another empty residence, another sigh of relief.
Outside, smoke from recent air strikes filled the air in the streets of Fallujah with the smell of carbon. The date was Nov. 15, 2004—a day Jimenez will never forget.
Jimenez’s fire team approached the next home. It was surrounded by tall walls, its gate secured with a lock and chain. The Marines broke through the gate and went around to the side of the house. Lance Cpl. Jeramy Ailes, Jimenez’s best friend in Iraq, led the team through the kitchen door. Jimenez was right behind Ailes as they walked toward the shadowy hallway. As Ailes rounded the corner a shot exploded. The bullet went through his eye and came out the back of his head. Jimenez watched as his friend fell dead to the floor. Another Marine took out the shooter and got shot in the arm. Jimenez hurried everyone out of the house, leaving Ailes’ body behind.
Recalling this harrowing experience, Jimenez, now 22, doesn’t shed a tear. He sits at the end of a conference room at a Department of Veteran Affairs hospital in Menlo Park. Wearing khaki shorts and a fresh white shirt that halfway conceals the skull tattoo on his left arm, and sporting a neatly-trimmed mustache and goatee, he looks like any healthy young man. Jimenez’s war wounds are internal.
The North Salinas High School graduate has just began a three-month treatment program for post-traumatic stress disorder. A green button showing his name and entry date hangs around his neck. His psychologist Jean Cooney is in the room for support, but Jimenez doesn’t need it.
The Salinas native’s voice is flat and controlled. He rolls out the facts from the Battle of Fallujah just as easily as he describes eating hamburgers for lunch. He even slips in a couple of jokes. After he recounts Ailes’ death, Jimenez lets out a loud belch. “Damn lettuce,” he says. Cooney and I laugh at a time most people would want to cry.
Jimenez continues: An assailant threw a grenade at him as he fled the yard. A piece of shrapnel hit him. Luckily, his body armor stopped it from piercing his skin. This narrow escape didn’t stop Jimenez from completing his mission, however.
After he told his platoon sergeant that Ailes was dead, Jimenez went back into the home to retrieve his corpse. As he and the sergeant picked up Ailes’ lifeless body, some of his friend’s blood dripped onto Jimenez’s boots. They dragged him out of the residence and loaded him into the back of a Humvee. The platoon sergeant then called in an air strike on the entire block.
Later that night, Jimenez and his squad were back on patrol.
“You can’t stop for one guy,” Jimenez says, swiveling his chair and shaking his leg. “You don’t have time to grieve for nothing. It’s war.”
Ailes, who was from Gilroy, was killed toward the end of Jimenez’s first tour in Iraq. He died about two weeks after his 22nd birthday. The two Marines planned on flying back home together when their tour was finished in January 2005. Jimenez was going to drop Ailes at home before making his way to his mom’s house in Gonzales.
Jimenez didn’t join the Marines because he wanted to be a hero. He says he didn’t want to stay in Salinas and the Marines gave him a way out. Now he’s a recovering alcoholic medicated on anti-depressants. While he is still getting used to the fact that the Marine Corps is no longer his family, he is soon going to be a father. His girlfriend is three months pregnant.
• • •
When he was 17, Jimenez worked at PetSmart. He didn’t have any plans for college. One day he was watching TV with his grandma, and a commercial for the Marines came on. The slick, blue, button up uniform caught his grandma’s eye. “You’d look so cute in that outfit,” his grandma said.
Jimenez decided to join up. He says he didn’t want to hang out and get in trouble. “It’s either I go the Marines or I am going to end up in jail,” he recalls thinking. “I figured the Marines are the toughest and I thought I was tough, so I thought I would try it out.”
Apparently, Jimenez was pretty tough. He excelled in boot camp, beating out about 90 guys, almost every one of them a lot taller than him, for top of his class. He must have pleased his grandma by being the one wearing his dress blues at his gradation in San Diego.
Jimenez met Ailes at Camp Pendleton, where their regiment, the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, is based. They hit it off. Ailes was a jokester who loved country music and working on cars. “Every time you’d be down he’d be the one to cheer you up,” Jimenez says.
The Marines shipped his company to the Al Anbar province of Iraq in June 2004. The province was a hotbed for Sunni militants.
Only 19, Jimenez was given a lot of responsibility. He was in charge of three other soldiers, all of them in their 20s. As team leader, Jimenez carried an M-203, which is an M16 with a grenade launcher (Jimenez calls it “the Tony Montana gun,” referencing Scarface). His flak jacket weighed about 40 pounds—not a comfortable outfit in desert heat.
Sitting at his mom’s dining room table a month ago, Jimenez says he felt the responsibility of protecting his fire team from the dangers of suicide bombers and ambushes. “I had never been to combat or nothing,” he says. “I had to grow up real quick.”
One day his convoy ran over an improvised explosive device and his truck was lifted clear off the ground. No one was hurt, but the fear of encountering an IED on the side of the road still makes Jimenez nervous.
“When I’m driving and I see something on the side of the road I kind of freak out at little bit,” Jimenez says, while pushing a Gatorade bottle around in a little circle. “But then I tell myself, ‘I’m in America. It’s not a bomb.’”
Jimenez takes off his black T-shirt and lays it face down on the dining room table. Under the heading “Freedom’s Sacrifice” are the names of 33 Marines, all of them from his regiment, many of them his friends, and all of them dead.
• • •
Dressed in her Safeway uniform, Jimenez’s mom, Esther Cabrera-Vasquez, sits by the window in a Salinas Starbucks. She clasps her hands and the sun illuminates the red in her hair. She says her son wasn’t an exceptional student growing up. He occasionally got in trouble. He was angry, and he had a reason to be angry, Cabrera-Vasquez says—his dad left them when Jimenez was 10. “His father was never around for the eight years that he needed him the most,” she says.
Still, Cabrera-Vasquez says, Jimenez was a good kid. He was easygoing and helped with chores. Jimenez also liked to horse around. She says her son would routinely impersonate Jim Carrey as Ace Ventura. “Adrian was never shy,” Cabrera-Vasquez says. “He liked to talk.”
When Jimenez came back from his first tour, he was different. He avoided old friends, and talked only of the men he’d served with in Iraq. “He drank a lot more,” she says. “He didn’t care about anyone else except his boys. He couldn’t sleep. He looked around corners.”
Tears start welling up in her eyes. She says her son didn’t tell her about Ailes’ death until he came back. Jimenez brought back his boots, with Ailes’ blood still on them.
While he was back, he and several other Marines visited Ailes’ parents in Gilroy. Jimenez had to explain to them how their son was killed. The Marines went together to Ailes’ gravesite.
But Ailes’ death was not something Jimenez dwelled on, especially since he had a second tour of duty ahead of him.
In September 2005, the Marines shipped Jimenez back to Iraq, to a town west of Baghdad along the Euphrates River called Hit. Next, his company went to Haditha. On Nov. 19, Lance Corp. Miguel Terrazas, another friend, was killed by a roadside bomb. According to a military investigative report, a dozen Marines responded by killing five civilians near the convoy and then went house to house, killing 19 more Iraqis, including women and children, in what has been called a revenge massacre.
The criminal hearing began last week for three Marines charged with murder and four officers charged with failing to report or investigate the deaths. Jimenez was in no way implicated in the killings. He says his squad was on patrol in a different part of Haditha.
Without a trace of emotion in his voice, Jimenez says he had known Terraza, a 20-year-old from Texas, since boot camp. But when he found out about Terraza’s death and the civilian massacre about eight hours after the fact, it didn’t bother him. “It wasn’t hard because I guess I was already used to it,” he says.
Already accustomed to his friends dying, Jimenez says he did not care about much of anything—except getting his boys out of Iraq in one piece. The Marines would soon strip him of his means to protect them.
Jimenez says he had become frustrated with his commander in Haditha, who he believed at times put his company in danger. Jimenez was already on bad terms with the Marines brass—a board had denied him a promotion to corporal, and Jimenez believed he had lost any chance for advancement. “Once the higher ups don’t like you, you are pretty much screwed,” he says.
Then, about a month after the massacre, a friend of Jimenez’s received a shipment of hard liquor. Jimenez says his squad went on patrol buzzed one evening, caught some insurgents and took them to holding cells.
Jimenez says the mission went smoothly, but his staff sergeant found out that he’d been drinking. The next day he told Jimenez he should be evaluated for his emotional problems. This order was a surprise to Jimenez, who couldn’t see anything wrong with himself. “I didn’t think that I had a problem,” he says. The psychologist diagnosed him with a personality disorder.
“They told me I was self destructive, but I don’t even know what that is,” Jimenez says. The Marines gave him the option to leave, and Jimenez took it. “I knew if I went on a third deployment I’d lose my mind,” he says.
His company returned to Camp Pendleton in the spring of 2006. It was here that the Marines diagnosed him with PTSD. But Jimenez says he didn’t take the prescribed anti-depressants. Instead, he self-medicated with beer and liquor.
During a visit to Salinas at the end of April, Jimenez got behind the wheel drunk. The California Highway Patrol nabbed him for a DUI on Blanco Road.
Jimenez went back to San Diego, where he was ostracized. His 1st Sgt. called him “a cancer to the Marines” and took away his camouflage uniform, Cabrera-Vasquez says. She recalls her son telling her that he was going to lose it if he didn’t get out of there. Cabrera-Vasquez got on the phone and complained. The Marines administratively discharged Jimenez within a week.
Jimenez was suddenly a civilian again. But he says he still thought like a Marine in a war zone. “When you’re in Iraq, you got to not care whether you die or the guy next to you dies,” he says. “That’s what keeps you going. When I came back I knew I had that mentality.”
• • •
Jimenez got out of the Marines with no job and not much of a resumé. After two combat tours as a rifleman, he couldn’t see himself working at a grocery store. He applied for a job as a sheriff’s deputy but they wouldn’t consider him because of his DUI. He tried attending classes at Hartnell College but he couldn’t concentrate in class. So Jimenez generally hung out with his friends and got tanked a lot.
His constant partying didn’t settle well with his girlfriend, Katrina Guana. Guana, who attends Fresno State, says his drinking got out of control—even by a college student’s standards. “He really didn’t sleep much because he was always awake drinking and partying,” she says. “I’d always be mad at him because he wouldn’t stop drinking.”
Jimenez was also emotionally cold, Guana says. “I don’t think he understood how to love me because he was still distant,” she says. “He didn’t really care if he lived. His life was always on the line in Iraq and he did so much over there he felt he always had to watch his back here.”
Guana, who is 20, says they broke up a few times during this period.
Both alcohol abuse and emotional numbness are common conditions for veterans with PTSD. But Jimenez only occasionally saw a psychiatrist at the VA clinic on Fort Ord. And he still wasn’t taking his medication.
At the end of February of this year Jimenez was drinking with his cousin at the King’s Den in downtown Salinas. Police officers came in to question his cousin, so Jimenez put up a fight.
Police arrested him for obstructing a police officer and public intoxication.
About two week later authorities arrested Jimenez again—this time for obstructing a Monterey County Sheriff’s deputy. “Apparently he had a problem with authority,” Cabrera-Vasquez says.His mom says he she was appalled at the Marines for transforming her son from an easy-going guy to a short-tempered delinquent. “My son does not belong in prison,” she says. “He does not belong in jail because of something that the Marines put him through.”
Finally, his family got him some help. Jimenez enrolled in a month-long alcohol abuse program at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System. He hasn’t had a drink since March 9.
“If I would not have gotten help, I probably would have been in jail right now,” Jimenez says.
Shortly after he went into treatment, Guana found out that she was five and half weeks pregnant. Guana says Jimenez was more excited than she was when he heard the news. “I think the baby has brought something else for him to look forward to,” she says.
Jimenez walks down the wide, carpeted hallway of the PTSD building in Menlo Park, pointing to the offices of counselors, psychologists and pharmacists. He carries a coffee mug and appears comfortable and upbeat.
The lobby opens up to a sunny courtyard where we take the stairs to his room. His humble twin bed, which is by the window, is tightly made. On top of his desk are notebooks and the novel Angels and Demons by Dan Brown.
Jimenez says the atmosphere here is serene. “It has a nice feng shui,” he says. His psychologist Cooney laughs.
The PTSD program has 40 beds for men. Most of them are either veterans from Vietnam or the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Tasha Souter, medical director of the men’s PTSD program, says it’s really helpful for combat vets to have people that can relate to their war stories.
“It’s really a community of people who have been through similar experiences who are trying to seek help together,” Souter says.
Before he joined the program, Jimenez complained that he couldn’t talk to his family about his problems. He said he felt like they wouldn’t understand. Now it seems Jimenez has regained some of the camaraderie he had in the Marines—without being on the frontlines.
The first month of the program focuses on building skills such as anger management, and understanding PTSD and how it impacts their lives, Souter says. The program offers family workshops to help the men become fathers and husbands again.
From there, participants will go into small group treatment or cognitive therapy, which helps identify and eliminate problematic thinking patterns.
Jimenez is lucky to get treatment. Most veterans don’t seek treatment because of the stigma or other barriers. A 2004 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that most returnees who met the criteria for PTSD, generalized anxiety or major depression weren’t interested in seeking help. From the Marines study group, only 45 percent said they wanted to be treated.
“People don’t talk about PTSD in there,” Jimenez says, “because if you do, ‘Oh, you’re a pussy.’ So not everyone gets help.”
While Marines and soldiers don’t often elect treatment, they are coming back with PTSD in growing numbers. About 38 percent of soldiers and 31 percent of Marines suffer from traumatic brain injury and PTSD after returning from deployment, according to the Defense Department’s Task Force on Mental Health. Those numbers are expected to swell as servicemen return from multiple deployments.
Souter hopes that by treating soldiers returning from Iraq early they won’t suffer from the same fate as Vietnam veterans. Veterans from that war had huge problems with homelessness, drug abuse and divorce. “Our goal is to try to head that off and give them skills to manage what they are experiencing,” Souter says. “We can’t change the experience that they had, but we can help them cope in a way that will allow them to live better lives.”
Jimenez wants to put combat behind him and move on with his life, but regaining his feelings will be tough. He repressed his emotions when Ailes was killed and now that pain is tucked down inside him. Hopefully the PTSD program will help Jimenez bring those feelings out.
After he gets out of Menlo Park, Jimenez plans to move to Fresno and live with his girlfriend. Guana says she has rented a condo with a pool for them to live in.
Jimenez, meanwhile, says he now wants to go to college to become a veteran’s counselor. With no foreseeable end for the war in Iraq, it looks like Jimenez’s skills will be needed.