From Fallujah to Fatherhood: A Reflection on Balancing the Invisible Wounds of War
Posted by Reynaldo Leal Jr. on June 21
Four years ago today, I was kicking in doors and clearing houses in Fallujah with the 3rd Battalion 5th Marines. Up until that point, I hadn’t seen much of the world. I was a 21 year old kid from South Texas, and the U.S. military was suddenly giving me a crash course in combat warfare. I didn’t have a clue what real war was like, and, as it turned out, it was far worse than I could have imagined. With each loss and lull in fighting, talk among the Marines in my squad drifted more frequently to home and what we would do if we made it back to our wives and families. But I didn’t have either. As far as I was concerned, the only family I had consisted of surrogate fathers Sgt. Kirk and Cpl. Hawley ordering me each day to keep moving forward. If I wanted to survive, I had no choice but to live in the moment. And that’s exactly what I did to keep myself from hoping and dreaming of a life after Fallujah.
Today, I’m still living in the moment albeit in a different sense. Retired from the Corps, I now spend most of my days driving trucks and tanks with a toddler – my 19 month old son Reynaldo Leal, III. People told me when I got back from Iraq that having a child would change everything; I just didn’t realize how much so until he came along. On the day he was born, I thought my son, whom I named after my father, was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. After two deployments to Iraq, his arrival was an overdue moment of joy. Running around our apartment today playing Thomas the Train and investigating life with unrivaled curiosity, his innocence has helped in large part to balance my memories of Iraq and heal the invisible wounds of war: depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. In him, I have discovered everything that is good in me. Rey is my driving force –pushing me to finish my degree on the Post-9/11 GI Bill, pushing me to talk through my PTSD and, most importantly, to reach back to help my fellow Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in need.
In the months and years ahead, thousands of young veterans will return home as the United States draws down in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of them will start their lives anew, pursuing careers and raising families they never thought possible. And they will need our support. Recognizing that entire families bear the burden of long deployments, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America recently launched SupportYourVet.org – a companion to CommunityofVeterans.org - to give family and friends the tools and resources necessary to help young veterans make the transition home. In south Texas, my wife Ashley and I are also doing our part, joining with local veterans and their families to advocate for improved access to VA health care and counselors in our community. Erasing the stigma associated with PTSD and other invisible injuries will be one step towards helping our young veterans grow into stronger, healthier fathers and husbands.
My own father died when I was just ten years old, so I never knew how he felt to see me go off and return from war. Still, those relatives and friends who witnessed my difficult transition home often ask me: “What will you tell Rey when he asks about your military service?” If and when he does, I will tell him about the great men I served with in Fallujah and how they gave everything they had for their brothers in arms. But I will also be careful not to romanticize my experiences. I will tell him the truth: No one comes home unchanged from war, and I hope he will understand and be proud of me.
Reynaldo Leal, a proud Iraq veteran and spokesperson for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (www.IAVA.org), lives in Edinburg, Texas with his wife Ashley and son Reynaldo Leal, Jr.
In honor of my brothers - the fallen fathers and sons - of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines: We will not forget.
2nd Lt James P. Blecksmith, SSgt Melvin L. Blazer Jr., SSgt Gene Ramirez, Sgt Jeffrey L. Kirk, Cpl Michael D. Anderson Jr., Cpl Joseph J. Heredia, Cpl Raleigh C. Smith, Cpl Jason S. Clairday, Cpl Shane E. Kielion, Cpl Ian W. Stewart, Lcpl Victor R. Lu, Lcpl George J. Payton, Lcpl Antoine D. Smith, Lcpl Christopher S. Adlesperger, Lcpl Gregory P. Rund, Lcpl Erick J. Hodges, Lcpl Hilario F. Lopez, Lcpl Eric D. Hillenburg, and Lcpl James R. Phillips
IAVA has helped thousands of veterans. Here are some of their stories:
On Sunday, March 18th, IAVA Founder and Executive Director Paul Rieckhoff and…
On August 5th, IAVA Member Veterans joined President Obama at the Navy Yard…