Haunted, again and again

Posted: March 11, 2008

Twelve-year-old Lorimar Martinez stood terrified in the second-floor hall of her family's redbrick rowhouse on North Fifth Street.

Her dad, Lorenzo Martinez, imagined he had seen a sniper on a roof across the way. It was June 2006. His National Guard unit from Philadelphia had been home for seven months. For him, the battle lingered.

Martinez had barricaded himself in the blacked-out front bedroom, as if he were back in Iraq. He had threatened his son, who tried to get inside, and had punched a hole in the door.

In a panic, Martinez's wife, Maria, had called the police. Five police cars and a van screeched up to the house. A battalion of officers, it seemed, bounded up the steps.

Sgt. Anthony Villalobos, a member of Martinez's Alpha Company National Guard unit who lived up the street, came running over from his house when Maria called him. He pleaded with the officers to let him go into the room alone and calm Martinez down. The police agreed.

Villalobos shouldered his way past the bedding and furniture piled against the door. But then one of the officers tried to follow him. The officer's flashlight sent Martinez into a terrified rage.

Lorimar, clinging to the hall railing, saw her father "try to throw himself out of the window."

Martinez, a bald 44-year-old with a paunch, grappled with the intruders. It took five officers to wrestle him to the floor.

One of the officers raised his stick to land a blow, but Villalobos implored: "He's a war veteran."

Instead the officers bound Martinez, pulled him to his feet, and hauled him away.

Lorimar and her mother clung to each other in tears.

The last thing Martinez remembered, after arriving at nearby Episcopal Hospital, was looking up at a doctor or nurse.

"This will be good for you," she said, putting a needle in his arm.

He woke up later at the Kirkbride Center, a mental-health facility on North 49th Street.

"I thank God - and Villalobos - that I was taken to the hospital and not to jail," he said.

The police never pressed charges against Martinez. One of the officers he had wrestled with, a Navy veteran of the war in Iraq, apparently determined that the guardsman needed psychological help. Martinez knew the officer had given him a break.

Martinez, who liked to drink and party, had been avoiding getting help, although he had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder at the Philadelphia VA hospital. Well before he flipped out that night at home, he had been exhibiting classic symptoms of PTSD: black moods, anger flashes, anxiety attacks.

He remained troubled by images of what he had seen in his 101/2 months in Iraq.

In a violent period in May 2005, he had twice had narrow escapes.

In the first, insurgents laid an ambush for an Alpha patrol as it passed through the village of As Saliyah. A bomb blew up underneath a humvee and crushed the legs of Spec. John Ashenfelder. Gunfire then hit Sgt. Michael Sarro in the leg. To Martinez, in another humvee, the firefight seemed to go on forever.

Three days after the ambush, Martinez was again on a patrol when he saw a suspicious-looking vehicle parked on the right side of the road. "My heart started to race faster," he remembered. A second later, the vehicle exploded, killing an Iraqi soldier riding with Alpha.

Flashbacks to these attacks haunted him. But more troubling were his memories of Alpha's six dead soldiers. Again and again, he could see their faces in his mind.

Now, at the Kirkbride Center, he finally submitted himself to obtaining help.

All 131 Alpha soldiers who came home from Iraq carried dark pictures in their minds.

In one case, a ghoulish scene was captured on video by an Alpha soldier with a digital camera. After the men came home, it was copied onto a DVD and then passed slowly from one man to another, week by week, month by month. Most of the Alpha veterans have seen it.

The short scene opens at the site of a recent suicide bombing. The noise and smoke have cleared, and the cleanup has begun.

The jittery, close-up lens shows a U.S. soldier kneeling, only his brown boots, rifle and elbow pads visible at first. Wearing hospital gloves, he picks delicately through what appears to be a purplish chunk of meat.

"Are you going to show the face?" asks a youthful voice in the background.

"There's the forehead," says another.

Then another: "There's his face - his nose - right there."

Someone curses.

The soldier stands, and as the camera pulls back, he is revealed to be from Alpha Company, extending his hand, from which hangs what the men have found: the detached face of the suicide bomber.

By the summer of 2006, Mike Sarro, still laid up with his bum leg, was getting more bored by the minute.

He had plenty of time to watch TV news on Iraq, and much of what he saw he didn't like - especially what he considered the defeatist attitude of the Democrats then running for Congress.

His grandfather had written to Sen. Rick Santorum, a backer of keeping large numbers of troops in Iraq, and mentioned that Sarro was an Iraq veteran.

Soon thereafter, Sarro got a call from the Pennsylvania Republican's office. Would he help the senator's 2006 reelection campaign?

Sarro said he would.

Thus did the 26-year-old graduate of Pottstown's St. Pius X High School find himself - albeit, briefly - a figure in national politics.

The move didn't help Santorum win reelection - he lost to Democrat Bob Casey - but it gave an emotional lift to Sarro during his long healing.

Besides riding with Santorum on a campaign tour of the state, Sarro filmed a TV commercial for him - and found he was a natural on camera. John Brabender, Santorum's TV adman, said later: "He was just so sincere and so likable."

In the commercial, Sarro talked about the Iraq ambush in which an AK-47 rifle bullet shattered his lower right leg. He said he remained a supporter of the war and urged Americans to have patience.

"Just hang tight," he said. ". . . It's going to take time."

Through his Santorum connections, Sarro also appeared on FOXNews' The O'Reilly Factor, on which guest host Laura Ingraham questioned him about his Iraq experience.

"Would you do it all over again?" she asked.

Sarro, who was a Marine before he joined the Guard, leaped to his answer.

"You know I would," he said. "Marines would always do it all over again."

Tony Villalobos remembers what he was thinking when he came to help a raving Lorenzo Martinez: "What does a guy who has post-traumatic stress do for another guy who has post-traumatic stress?"

As summer turned to fall in 2006, Villalobos was still coping with his own PTSD and taking antidepressants.

The two men didn't see much of each other. They'd wave on the street. That was about it.

But they had a lot in common. A year younger than Martinez, V - as almost everyone in Alpha called him - was born in New York to parents who had moved from Puerto Rico. Martinez was born on the island.

Both had long-term marriages. Each had a son and a daughter, of similar age. Both lived just off Erie Avenue. Both had spent two decades or so in the Guard.

And both, like nearly half of Alpha veterans, had had severe anxiety attacks.

Villalobos' episode occurred on his job as a state prison guard in Chester. Luckily, he wasn't among inmates.

He was in the prison control station, from which guards monitor the cell blocks, and he hadn't taken his PTSD medications.

A big, intimidating guy, Villalobos was cursing. He threw his walkie-talkie and handcuffs to the floor. He then found himself sitting in his car in the parking lot and realizing, "I don't know how to get home."

He saw things in Iraq he didn't want to remember. One day, his platoon rushed to help a U.S. unit that had been in a suicide bomb attack. A soldier, just 18, had been burned to death in a vehicle. A fire truck had not yet arrived, and men were trying to douse the flames with water bottles.

"I have a lot of nightmares," Villalobos said.

One involves the night in August 2005 that four Alpha Company soldiers were killed in a mine explosion at a place called Smugglers Road. It was the deadliest incident that the Pennsylvania National Guard had suffered since World War II.

Villalobos was not on that mission. But in a recurring dream, he is riding in a humvee. He looks out the window and sees another humvee going by. He can recognize one of the men killed in the attack, Spec. Gennaro Pellegrini.

"I am yelling out the window: 'Stop the vehicle! Stop the vehicle!' I always see Pellegrini. Just before they look over, the vehicle explodes."

Staff Sgt. James Mostiller, a Philadelphia police officer with almost a dozen years in the military, was looking forward to an awards ceremony scheduled around Thanksgiving 2006. So he brought his whole family with him.

At the armory in Northeast Philadelphia, 13 months after Alpha got back, soldiers who had not yet received all of their Iraq medals were finally supposed to get them.

What Mostiller and other men wanted most was the Combat Infantryman Badge they were owed. Of all the medals the men could have earned, this was among the most significant. It indicated that a man had been in combat; he'd paid his dues. It linked him to the common soldiers of all the wars in the nation's history.

Many of the soldiers still hadn't gotten their "CIBs."

Alpha didn't need another reason to feel angry at the military brass. The men believed they hadn't been used properly in Iraq. They had wanted to be more aggressive in rooting out the insurgents. They felt that as guardsmen, part-time soldiers, they had been disrespected by some in the regular Army.

"There was a chip on people's shoulders when they came back, and I think it was for a good reason," said Capt. Kenrick Cato, who succeeded Capt. Anthony Callum as company commander.

Mostiller, coming up on his 31st birthday and with a baby at home, was one who seemed upset at the whole Iraq experience.

"You get ripped out of your regular life - your job, your family," he said. "You're doing missions over there. You see very little progress. You see the American people turning against you, soldiers still dying. Everything about [the experience] was negative.

"And where are we at today?" he asked. "Is the war won yet?"

The night of the ceremony, each man stood and went forward to get his awards. But it soon became apparent that not everyone was going to get one. Some medals hadn't yet been approved at higher levels of command, but no one had forewarned the men.

Mostiller found out only when his name was passed over. He couldn't believe it.

In fury, he got up and stomped out.

On a bitterly cold morning last March, Sgt. Neill Coulbourn stood smoking - and shivering - in front of Building 8 at the Coatesville VA hospital.

The hospital, which opened in the 1930s to care for World War I veterans, sits on a leafy hill above the old Lincoln Highway. The white clock tower on the main building can be seen for miles.

Building 8 houses the inpatient PTSD program, which draws veterans from several states. The waiting list is often months long.

Coulbourn, on this day, had been in the program for about two months and had two weeks to go. He was among at least four Alpha veterans who spent up to 12 weeks there.

Fifty Alpha veterans said they had been treated as outpatients at VA hospitals and clinics, and 12 said they had received private care for PTSD. Some have had both.

Coulbourn, pacing in the cold, flicked away his cigarette. Things at home and in the Guard were bothering him, but he didn't say what. "I have issues to deal with; I guess that's all I can say."

Iraq and Afghanistan veterans weren't the only ones in the program.

Many were Vietnam veterans who, according to former program director Steve Silver, himself a Vietnam veteran, hadn't ever dealt with the trauma they carried home from war. They were now in their 50s and 60s, often with histories of alcoholism, lost marriages and failed careers.

One good thing about the newest generation of war veterans, said Silver, a psychologist, is the unashamed desire to seek help for PTSD. The Army, wary of creating a generation of lost veterans, has drilled into their heads that they must seek help if they experience symptoms of PTSD - the disabling anxiety or rage or depression.

"They're more willing to step forward and nip it in the bud," Silver said.

Patients receive group therapy, recreational therapy and one-on-one therapy, he said. Antidepressant drugs are often part of the program.

Coulbourn, a gruff but genial sort, had been elected president of the patient group, which occupied a dormlike hall on a second floor. As the program's end neared, he said: "I think it's helped." He was feeling more on an even keel.

Two weeks later, having been released, he sat down to talk at greater length.

Being home hadn't been easy, Coulbourn said. He and his wife, who had been having troubles even before he went to Iraq, had parted company. He had not gone back to his old job as a cook at Houlihan's in the Exton Mall, saying he wasn't sure he could handle the stress of restaurant work.

A Purple Heart recipient, he had been hit with shrapnel when a suicide bomber in a white hatchback laden with explosives attacked an Alpha patrol on June 9, 2005.

Coulbourn, a machine gunner, was in the humvee turret and saw the car coming at the last instant. He tried to get off a shot, but before he could, the driver blew himself up. A piece of hot shrapnel hit Coulbourn in the forearm, damaging his ulnar nerve.

A nearly 20-year Guard veteran, Coulbourn might have retired. But rumors were circulating that Alpha would be going back, perhaps in the fall of 2008, and he was excited.

He wanted to avenge the six men the company had lost, whether that was a healthy attitude or not.

"I want payback," he said.

On the afternoon of last year's Puerto Rican Day parade, the crowd was standing in front of Lorenzo Martinez's rowhouse on North Fifth Street.

Martinez was out on the street that June day, saying hello, when a motorcycle rider cranked the throttle. The motor's loud brrup, brrup, brrup sounded like bursts of gunfire.

Martinez dived behind a pole.

His friends laughed, and he felt a bit sheepish as he got up. It was a reminder of how far he had come in his recovery - and of how far he still had to go.

After the bad night in June 2006, he'd had no more flashbacks, no more of what he called "losing my mind."

The antidepressants the Kirkbride doctors had given him had done some good. He had stopped drinking, thrown away the beer in the refrigerator, carried the Bacardi rum out of the basement.

Martinez had begun to realize what could happen if he didn't get his life back on track. Even more than when he was in Iraq, he saw just how fragile life is.

"I started to get afraid to die," he said. "Who is going to support my wife? Who is going to support my child?"

After many years of absence, he started going to church again.

The first time he attended the Iglesia Evangelica el Refujio, in a small blue-and-white building in an industrial area of North Third Street, the Spanish-speaking congregants seemed to stare at him as if he didn't belong.

But that was coming from within him, he saw, not from them. On his second visit, when the pastor called to the altar those who wanted to commit their lives to Christ, Martinez stepped forward.

Tomorrow: Another call.


Contact staff writer Tom Infield at 610-313-8205 or tinfield@phillynews.com.

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