By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
At first it was just dreams that bothered Junior Telfort — nightmares in which he was shooting people, or getting shot. One image in particular haunted him: "Seeing a guy's head split open," he recalls, "body parts all over the place, stepping on a piece of brain."
Then came the blackouts. He'd pass out for a minute or so and then come to, thinking he had been out for hours. And hallucinations. "Man, I remember sitting at a restaurant and looking out the window and seeing little green men jumping out of the bushes," he says, laughing just a little.
He began drinking heavily — it was the only way to calm down. He drove fast; he was ready to snap at anyone. One day shortly after he returned from active duty in Iraq, a truck cut him off on Stirling Road. Telfort floored it, pulled in front of the truck, and slammed on his brakes. After he had forced it to a stop, he jumped out of his car and ran to the driver's window, holding both hands in a shooting position — but they were empty. "The only thing I was missing was a gun."
On March 11, 2004, more than 100 families gathered outside the Hollywood National Guard Armory to greet the Alpha Company of the First Battalion of the 124th Infantry Regiment. They were back from Ar Ramadi — at that time the most dangerous city in the most dangerous province in Iraq — and they were okay. There were injuries — shrapnel in skulls, knees, arms, and legs; lost limbs; eardrums blown out from bombs; broken backs; torn tendons. There were events that didn't make the papers, known only to the soldiers themselves — attempted self-injuries, failed suicides — but every single member of the 124th Infantry — more than 500 men — had come back alive. Nothing quite like it had ever happened; it was the first time in United States history a battalion had come under fire for so long and returned without a single fatality.
Among the soldiers was Hubert Aris. Tall and well-built, with a handsome, clean-shaven face; a row of solid white teeth; and a neat mustache and goatee, the 30-year-old Jamaican-American walked out of the armory — and out of the war — looking like an ad for the military. His wife of two years wasn't there to greet him — he'd wanted his homecoming to be a surprise. He had his brother drive him to his house in Fort Lauderdale, picking up a bouquet of flowers and a giant stuffed bear on the way and recruiting some neighborhood kids to knock on his door and present the gifts. When Aris appeared in the doorway, his wife smiled, laughed, and began sobbing. Then he surprised her again: His knee, shoulder, and back were badly injured, and he had orders to report back to Fort Stewart, Georgia, to get treated. They would have only three days together before he left.
There were still more surprises. After Aris came home following treatment, he talked in his sleep and thrashed around in bed. Sometimes he would wake up suddenly, convinced he had heard an intruder. "I would fall asleep and then I'd wake up and tell my wife: 'I think I see something.' I kept a knife beside the bed. I'd take the knife, check my house, go outside, check the outside of the house, lock up everything again, try to go to sleep, and then she'd get mad, so I'd go downstairs, come back to bed, get up again, and check the house."
Things only got worse. Conversations became intolerable. "People always want the details, the details. They look at me strange, like, 'Man, did you really kill somebody?' Or they would tell you that you did a good job. What do you mean, 'a good job'?" He drank; he fought with his wife. "She'd keep saying that I was acting like we were in the military. 'I'm not a soldier,' she'd say. 'Don't talk to me like that.'" He got into fights at the bar. He drove recklessly. He became possessed by the idea that at any second, he would be killed. "I felt like I didn't have a purpose. And sometimes I'd be getting in so much trouble, and it put so much strain and headache on my wife, that I just didn't want to be there.... I felt something was going to happen. I was going to die. I wanted to die."
Three weeks ago — just more than three years since he returned from Ramadi — desperate to save his marriage, and his life, Aris checked himself into a 90-day inpatient program at the Miami Veterans Affairs Medical Center. For 14 weeks — restricted of his own free will from seeing his wife, from keeping a job, from leaving the building — he will focus on the single task of trying to understand what happened to him out there.
It won't be easy. The 124th Infantry of Florida's National Guard were civilians — cops, electricians, maintenance men, students. They deployed one month before the invasion, waiting it out in relative safety. When President George Bush landed aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln in May 2003 and preened before a banner that read "Mission Accomplished," most of them thought they'd be home in a few weeks. Instead they were sent to Ar Ramadi, where they inherited the war as it would come to look for the next four years. The city would quickly become one of the most dangerous and unpredictable places in the world, a place where the illusion of a liberated — and welcoming — Iraq crumbled before their eyes.