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.
Faced with a level of brutality new to American soldiers in Iraq, they responded brutally, taking over the city by sheer force. In a way, it worked — all 550 survived — but the ruthlessness with which they fought also cost the guardsmen: They came back alive, but not whole.
Hubert Aris received orders to ship out the day after Christmas 2002. At the time, he was working as a maintenance man at a local hotel. Along with the more than 1200 people that composed the 124th Infantry, he was told to report to Fort Stewart, Georgia, and to prepare to spend a year in uniform. It was rumored that an invasion of Iraq was imminent, but Florida National Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Ron Tittle told the Miami Herald at the time that he had "not seen anything to indicate that the soldiers are being readied for action in Iraq." Nonetheless, after less than two months of training, Aris left with the regiment's Alpha and Charlie companies for the Middle East. They arrived in Jordan, where they spent the duration of the invasion manning towers and staring into the desert, learning to use C4 explosives by digging holes in the arid soil, planting the C4 grenades, and running.
Then, in early April, the 124th Infantry was sent to Ar Ramadi.
With a population of some 400,000 — roughly the same as Miami's — Ramadi is situated in the southwest corner of the Sunni Triangle, an area in central Iraq composed mostly of Sunni Arab Muslims and for many years one of Saddam Hussein's strongholds. The three companies of the 124th were to replace the weary Third Infantry Division — professional soldiers who had led the desert charge on Baghdad and then, instead of being allowed to come home, had been redeployed to Iraq's newest conflict zones, Fallujah and Tikrit.
Their replacements were decidedly scrappier. The 124th men were without body armor or armored vehicles; they drove Humvees and 50-ton trucks, into which the soldiers piled, exposed, to patrol the streets. Their accommodations were poor: Bravo Company, the best-situated, occupied a decimated palace that only a month prior had belonged to Saddam Hussein; Charlie Company bivouacked in what was literally a bombed-out scrap yard on a remote edge of the city; Alpha Company — having shown up last — was put in a converted barn outside the palace, where they slept in the sand. When the sun set on Ramadi, the city would come alive with gunfire, and mortar shells hit their camps from the first night to the last. Spec. Edouard H.R. Gluck, a member of the 124th who recorded the experience in his book of photographs, This Is Our War, told a reporter: "If Hell physically exists, if there is in fact a Hell ... it is Ramadi."
As a guardsman, Aris assumed his job in Iraq would be to back up other, active-duty soldiers. But it turned out the 124th was the only infantry present in all of Ramadi. So Aris became a machine-gunner. He and his fellow guardsmen patrolled the city, conducted raids, responded to ambushes, and detained suspected insurgents. Early into their stay, Aris and several other Alpha soldiers were riding in a truck convoy on their way back to base on the main road — a thoroughfare that would later come to be known as "Ambush Alley" — when the driver of one of the trucks spotted something suspicious in the road. While he was maneuvering around the object, Aris looked up and saw a strange sight: purple smoke streaking all around him. It wasn't until the grenades hit the ground behind them and began exploding that Aris realized what was happening. "RPGs were flying all around us. But we had never heard of one, never seen one. To me, I just saw colors coming toward me and I thought, What the hell is that?"
By then the soldiers were being shot at as well. "It was an ambush," Aris says. The men sped off to the base and were piling out of the trucks when someone noticed something lodged inside Aris's truck: a grenade, undetonated. "And that was the reality of it right there," he says. "That was the first time, and everybody could have died. We stayed up until the next day, all of us, just talking about it."
Now, four years later, RPGs and IEDs are household terms. But what Aris and his company were witnessing in Ramadi was, in fact, the beginning of a new war. Baghdad was still relatively safe for soldiers — but out in the Sunni Triangle, and especially in Ramadi, Florida's National Guard was witnessing the beginnings of the counterinsurgency.
"They were the first infantry to really go into Iraq, into the great unknown, as an established unit," explains Gluck, the guardsman who was assigned to photograph the day-to-day war in Ramadi, "because basically everybody else there was there for the 'Mission Accomplished' part of it. But what started to happen was that the 124th started to lend themselves to the reality that this was not a conventional war."
Battalion commander Hector Mirable, Gluck says, was the chief mind behind this new, unconventional strategy. A onetime Miami Police major, Mirable had his men patrol Ramadi endlessly. They would break down doors, blow apart buildings, and kill anyone who got too close. These days, patrols are the norm all over Iraq — most soldiers are killed by IED explosions during such outings — but at the time, it was a new tactic.
"Walking the street at night — alleyways, remote areas of the city ... it's called 'movement to contact,'" explains Junior Telfort, who also belonged to Alpha Company. "You move until you hit something: A bomb goes off, you hear a shot, somebody snipes, you spot something before it spots you."
Most of the dozen 124th Infantry soldiers New Times spoke with say their superior officers, Mirable in particular, purposefully sent them out to be shot at, provoking conflict to win awards like the coveted Combat Infantry Badge. "Our commander, our leadership — frankly they wanted the CIB," says Aris.
Telfort concurs: "They were trying to find engagements."
"They would put you in harm's way just to get a freaking CIB," agrees Jimmy Madrano, a specialist in Charlie Company.
New Times left three phone messages in an attempt to reach Mirable for comment, but was unsuccessful.
"The best offense is a good defense," Charlie Company commander Tad Warfel told New Times in an e-mail. "All of a sudden my company got orders to go to Iraq — it shocked Lieutenant Colonel Mirable as much as it shocked me.... Infantry has one job: to make contact with the enemy. There's only one way to do that — send soldiers out into harm's way."
"Mirable was a man with a colossal ego. He applied the same mindset of a place in east Miami to another place where they had a whole shitload of guns," Gluck says. "And it worked. Anybody who's angry about the Ramadi experience — don't blame Ramadi, don't blame the soldiers, don't blame the insurgents, don't blame Mirable — blame President Bush. There's one man who concocted this entire thing, this entire fiasco. One man."
As they came under fire, the 124th began to kill. The first few incidents were small in scale: A driver who crossed a checkpoint was shot and decapitated; a man believed to have been launching mortar attacks was shot in the head. But as the violence increased, and the ambushes began, killing became a much sloppier business.
Aris's first firefight came one night when his unit was ambushed during a raid on the house of an alleged weapons supplier. The soldiers had arrived in several trucks and Humvees, stormed the house, and dragged out some half-dozen people. As the questioning began, a truck near Aris started making sounds: ping, ping, ping. It took him a moment to realize that bullets were hitting the vehicle. It was a sniper.
"We started shooting the .50 cal," Aris remembers, referring to the .50-caliber machine gun, a weapon that requires two people to operate and fires slugs the girth of a hot dog. "A .50 cal can go right through a house." Their attackers were invisible, and all the soldiers could do was keep shooting. "We were literally just shooting to keep them from shooting. Imagine how many buildings we shot at, how many people might have died that day. We thought about this after the fact." The firefight eventually subsided, but not before Aris and his companions had reduced the area — a residential zone in a densely populated city — to rubble. "At one point this guy came out with a [rocket launcher].... He fired, and he missed. Later on we talked about that. We said, 'How many people got killed because he missed the building and hit something else?'... Honestly I didn't want to know."
Aris is haunted by one memory in particular, of a car that approached. "This guy was coming and we flashed a light, and we figured if he comes to this point, we have to shoot him," he recalls. "I saw the whole family killed — kids and everything. That's one of my nightmares — seeing the family."
The violence went both ways. As the months dragged on, the injuries began to pile up. In July 2003, Sgt. Jason Recio, who now lives in Kendall, was caught in an RPG explosion that severely wounded both legs and blew off his calf; he was able to keep his legs but walks in braces. The following month, Sgt. John Quincy Adams was evacuated after an IED went off near his vehicle, sending shrapnel into his skull and paralyzing half his body. Of the 550 soldiers sent to Ramadi, 54 received the Purple Heart; Charlie Company alone received a whopping 23, more than any other company in the state.
The injuries, the constant danger, and the starkness of life in Ramadi pushed many 124th soldiers to the edge — and sometimes over. There were fights. Alpha took personal conflicts to a patch of sand called "The Pit," where, it was understood, rank didn't exist. As time went on, Aris says, the pit wore ever deeper. By all accounts, soldiers of the 124th drank prodigiously. "I seen guys so drunk they would run around naked in front of commanders."
Aris had his own problems within the company. He and his commander, Ricardo Roig, didn't get along. According to e-mails provided by Aris, when he applied for mental health benefits after coming home, the army sent an e-mail to Roig requesting verification that Aris had been deployed "in an environment that would have attributed [sic] to his PTSD; therefore, verifying combat stress." Roig, according to the same document, wrote back the same day, saying Aris "did not see any combat under my command.... It is my estimation that he is looking for a meal ticket, and I will not be part of it." (Roig, who is serving overseas, declined to comment for this article.) Aris was dumfounded and then furious. Eventually his platoon leader, Tony Yiris, confirmed in a letter that Aris had seen combat: "During my time, we made contact twice, once in a raid on a target house that turned into an ambush, and second on a vehicular ambush returning to base camp. SPC Aris was present for both of these situations." Yiris repeated this position in an interview with New Times, but also claimed Aris was a problematic soldier who complained often. "He was a guy I had to keep my eye on," Yiris said.
With each injury, with each fight, Aris says, the soldiers grew more brutal in the streets of Ramadi. "Basically it became 'Kill them first,'" he says.
Aris and Telfort both say they witnessed an incident in which a fellow soldier shot a civilian in the back in cold blood. "We were looking for somebody, and [this guy] was trying to walk away and all of a sudden one of the guys just shot him in the back," Telfort says. "He shot the guy in the back. And you saw other squad leaders and sergeants jump in the [soldier's] face — they knew they fucked up. You could see everybody was pissed off about what happened.... Then they turned around and said the individual was a target. That's what got me. I don't think he was a target."
Responding to the allegations, Charlie Company commander Warfel says, "I was never aware of anyone shooting anyone in cold blood. There was a lot of our guys shot and a lot of them shot."
In March 2005 — a year after the 124th had returned — news broke about a video titled "Ramadi Madness" found on a computer in the Bravo Company armory. The 26-minute video, shot and edited by two Bravo Company members, showed a soldier kicking a wounded detainee and soldiers manipulating the corpse of an Iraqi to wave hello at the camera. The footage depicted events that took place before the 2004 revelations of prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib — but the two incidents were inevitably linked in the public mind. After a six-month investigation, the military called the videos "inappropriate but not criminal." No charges were filed.
Matthew Newman, the soldier who shot the footage, defended his company, saying to the Palm Beach Post: "Everybody I saw that was dead was trying to kill me.... The reason we didn't have any casualties: We were ferocious in the city. We'd show them a certain degree of disrespect."
Bernadine Newman, Matthew's mother, defends the soldiers. "It's our military, our government who train them to act and react regardless of their personalities and who they are inside," she tells New Times. "You go over there and try to deal with it."
Not everyone could. At least five battalion members describe attempted suicides, and one says they were common. (A Pentagon report released last week says soldier suicides have reached their highest rates in 26 years, with one-third of them occurring among active-duty troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.) Aris has a photo of what appears to be a man getting his stomach pumped. He says the man, a friend, had tried to overdose on aspirin.
Within days of the guardsmen's departure from Ramadi, the death toll began to soar. The 124th was replaced by a unit of Marines — an acknowledgment of sorts that "Mission Accomplished" no longer fit the bill. On March 31, 2004, four American security contractors in nearby Fallujah were killed, mutilated, and strung up in public; American newspapers showed their charred corpses hanging from a bridge. Days later, on April 11, 2004, 12 Marines were killed in Ramadi in an attack by Sunni insurgents; the New York Times called it "one of the most violent days in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein."
As the word quagmire began making rounds in the media, the 124th faded quietly into the back pages of the conflict's history. The newly released guardsmen, meanwhile, attempted to resume the lives they had left a year ago. It wasn't so easy.
"Total numbness" is how Dicky Magoo, a tattoo artist who served as a radio operator in Alpha Company, explains how he felt when he came home. "No feelings towards anybody else. Towards my wife, I didn't care. I couldn't go out. I just stayed at work." He and his wife have since separated, he says.
"Everything that people do is fucking annoying to me — and I have no fucking tolerance for stupidity," says Jimmy Madrano, describing the feeling of being back. He has bad dreams: "Sometimes I wake up and my ears are still blocked. It sounds like real gunshots, but there's no noise."
Frank Cabadiana, a platoon sergeant from Charlie Company, has it bad. A short, stocky man who speaks with a rapid, charming half-Hispanic, half-Brooklyn accent, Cabadiana provides an inventory of suffering: "Two bombs. Two ambushes. Many firefights. Two heart attacks. What else? Then there is the PTSD."
Slowly at first, then faster and faster, Cabadiana fell apart. He withdrew from other people — his now-ex-wife, his family, his few friends. "I couldn't be around people," he says. "I couldn't function sexually — and you want to be able to perform, you know? I wasn't laughing, wasn't feeling anything. I just would get drunk and pass out."
Other times he was overcome by emotion. "I was crying — I never cried in my life — and I was thinking all the time, Why do I have to kill so many people, why do they have to kill me, why does it have to happen this way, why were my guys wounded, why do I have to see my friends, young guys, all bloody?... It was too much." One day he woke up in the driver seat of his car, in the middle of a busy intersection, not knowing how he had gotten there. "That was when I knew I was going to die if I didn't get help," he says. He enrolled himself in the VA's inpatient PTSD program.
Cabadiana was living at Fort Stewart when Hubert Aris arrived in April 2004 for treatment on his knee, back, and shoulder. The two roomed together in a trailer. Only six months earlier, the base had been the center of a national scandal when United Press International published a story detailing squalid conditions, an overwhelmed staff, and a 600-name waiting list for treatment at Fort Stewart. Those soldiers, like Aris, were there on "medical hold," the terms of their service extended indefinitely until the army evaluated, treated, and discharged them. Six months after that revelation, little had changed; Aris spent nearly a year waiting to be treated.
He didn't mind as much as he might have; the truth was that he had mixed feelings about going home, he says. Shortly after he arrived for treatment, he started arguing with his wife. He began making excuses not to go home, to stay at Fort Stewart, which — in all its squalor and bureaucratic indifference — felt more like home to him now.
When Aris met him, Cabadiana was also undergoing a change. He had found God in Ramadi. The incomprehensible survival of his company despite their many injuries had convinced him an angel was watching over them. In his sudden zeal, he had gone so far as to organize a mass baptism in the Euphrates river. Now he believed God had given him a new purpose: to help soldiers cope. Cabadiana says he has been "like a stepfather" to Aris, whose father died in Jamaica when he was a child. It was Cabadiana who ultimately persuaded Aris to get treated for PTSD.
PTSD has increasingly become the focal point of veteran mental health services. The term began appearing as a diagnosis only since the Eighties, but the symptoms are as old as war itself. "Soldiers' heart," "shell shock," "battle fatigue" — all have described the same phenomenon. According to its most recent numbers, the VA estimates that somewhere between 12 and 20 percent of soldiers returning from Iraq suffer from PTSD, depending on length of stay and, of course, what the soldier saw and did. Killing ranks high as a risk factor. Of veterans who have received treatment at the VA, 25 percent have received mental health diagnoses, and the vast majority of these are for PTSD. As the war in Iraq slogs on, the VA and other health organizations are sounding alarms about an impending mental health crisis.
Cabadiana has his own name for the problem. "It's the ghost," he says. "We call it the ghost, the ghost that never leaves you alone. When you sleep, you have nightmares. When you're alone in the car, it's talking to you. It's a ghost, always behind you."
The inpatient program into which Cabadiana committed himself, in which Aris is currently enrolled, is one of 30 programs around the country, although Miami's requires one of the longest stays — 14 weeks. Patients are required to remain at the VA for the duration, two to a room, going home only on weekends and with occasional night passes. The program accommodates 16 patients at a time; the waiting list stretches well into September.
The program, Cabadiana says, helped. "I'm talking to you, aren't I?" he points out. "Now I tell everybody to go. I help them that way. I see a lot of soldiers lately, a lot of friends suffering. I go back to my old unit, I talk to them, help them see that it's a reality."
Aris has been living on the fifth floor of the VA hospital for four weeks. It's a strange sight — the ex-machine-gunner's new life looks a lot like that of a college freshman (actually, says Dr. Daniela David, who runs the program, the ward is supposed to feel like a barracks). His room, which he shares with another vet, consists of two small beds, a mostly empty dresser, and a bulletin board onto which is tacked a schedule of his classes and an American flag. He spends his days attending group meetings and programs like "music therapy" and "relaxation class." On a recent evening, he constructed a wind chime. It helped him calm down, he says.
He's angry about a lot of things. The surgery he received in Fort Stewart left Aris with no feeling in his knee; he has had two corrective surgeries at the VA hospital, and still has only some feeling and partial mobility. Six months after his trip to Fort Stewart, he began to get headaches as well, and doctors discovered that — somehow — he had contracted a brain infection, for which his skull had to be cut open for surgery. The operation rendered him unable to speak for weeks — his words still come out slightly slurred — and every now and then, he fumbles for a word he used just seconds beforehand. But his biggest complaint these days is work: "They say, 'When you come back, you guys will have a job. You will have a job,' they say. Everybody, when you're getting released, they tell you that. 'There are programs just for veterans,' they say. 'All you have to do is apply.' I've filled out 50 or more job applications — nothing."
One evening during his second week in the program, Aris walked off the fifth floor, left the building, and went home, not intending to go back. But after talking to his wife, he decided not to quit. Since then, he's had perfect attendance. Recently he even wrote a poem of sorts. Asked to write three positive things about his life on a piece of notebook paper, he couldn't think of any — not one. On deadline, he began to scrawl:
I am here.
I am breathing.
I am alive.