By Julio Torres (November 2016)
My name is Julio Torres. I am ethnically Puerto Rican, born and raised in New York City, New York. I have been in the army the past eleven years and am currently a Staff Sergeant. Six of those years (2005–2011) have been active duty and five in the reserves (2011–2016). While active duty I was stationed in Germany, Kansas and Iraq. My MOS (Mission Occupational Specialty) was 96B/ 35F, as an Intelligence Analyst. For the most part I did research and analysis. The last three years however I changed my job to 56M which is a Chaplain’s Assistant/ Religious Affairs Specialist. In my career, I worked with seventy contractors, and five hundred military intelligence soldiers. I have a BA in Global History and am working on my Master’s in Divinity at Union Theological Seminary in New York.
When I first joined the army in 2005, they put me in a Hilton hotel overnight. In the morning during breakfast, one fellow recruit, rejoining after an injury in Iraq, was having a discussion about water boarding, torture and shooting first and asking questions later. In my youth, I said, “My country is righteous, fighting the evil of terrorism, and more importantly not allowing weapons of mass destruction in the hands of someone like Saddam Hussein. We must do what is necessary.” I was fearful that a bomb could be used against America. The devastation of 9/11 and recent history lessons on the atomic bomb and devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were fresh in my mind. In this respect, the war had impacted my upbringing and worldview. Much like during the cold war, I feared that “terrorists” would attack anywhere, at any time.
When I found out the lies about the weapons of mass destruction, I contemplated jumping off a tall building. My sense of purpose was destroyed, and what I thought I worked for turned out to be a lie. I went from fighting against evil to realizing that I was on the wrong side. My emotional, mental and spiritual well being were all impacted by this. And I know that I’m not alone in this: Half of the married couples I’ve known in the military are divorced. I’ve known 40 homeless vets and have seen 60 with alcohol or drug problems. Self medication is cheaper than therapy, especially because you can drink in your off time. If you’re lucky enough to make it to an anonymous group, you still end up with the stigma of being weak, not being productive and being a substance abuser who lacks discipline. Better to have a drink with your buddy. And yet every year, I hear of two more veterans who have committed suicide. So every year, I have had to attend two or more suicide prevention trainings.
Both before and after my deployment, I personally was beset with nightmares, irritability, and anger issues. The war has created a real element of fear. All religions promote a healthy spirituality consisting of hope, meaning and purpose. Yet Iraq and the military transformed that hope into fear, specifically a heightened fear of death: that trash can be explosives, that anyone in loose clothing could be hiding a weapon, fear that anyone, specifically Arabs and Muslims, could potentially be your enemy. I remember talking to a Muslim chaplain from New Jersey who worked for the New York police for years. He held a middle to high rank. He told me that when he went to represent the NYPD in a 9/11 ceremony, he was threatened by secret service agents there.
All religions promote a healthy spirituality consisting of hope, meaning and purpose. Yet Iraq and the military transformed that hope into fear, specifically a heightened fear of death.
This fear is just one cost of the war. It has also cost me my patriotism, my joy, my pride, my youth, my formation, my emotional growth, my humanity.
In my years of active duty, I witnessed the fivefold increase in enlisted intelligence personnel. There were also more contractors, who cost more money. You could have funded three or more junior enlisted military for every contractor who was brought on. And those were jobs that I knew a lot of people would have wanted, despite the costs.Yet every time I came back home I saw more and more homeless people. Meanwhile, a general at one point put $1 million dollars towards a tent that was supposed to fill with air and make it resilient to munitions that would bounce off of it: the thing collapsed all the time.
The reality is that in the neighborhood I grew up in, people were poor, and no one could go to college without going into debt. I cannot say I was familiar with the situation of those who were of Southwest or South Asian descent, for example Arabs or Indians, as Islamophobia knew no bounds, only Brown skin color. There were not many Protestant white people, if any, that I knew from my part of Queens, although I met many in the army who were escaping from poverty or repaying college loans. Some joined for patriotic reasons as well and future job opportunities as contractors. I knew ten people from my high school graduating class of five hundred kids who were Black, Latino, and East Asian and joined the military to pay for college. There may have been more. We became indentured servants in a way, unable to just get a job out of high school that was barely minimum wage, which was at that time about five or six bucks an hour. In my home we had a lot of people: me and my two brothers, parents and a grandparent all in a two-bedroom apartment. This wasn’t uncommon. We had to take care of our elderly family because the other option of senior homes was too expensive. While my dad has had an excellent job all my life, he was still not able to afford helping me in college. My mother has a part time job and is a full time house mom. Still I had to join the military for the college money. Patriotism and a sense of duty were there, too, but I needed a job. I needed college money. I needed health care, I needed food and water. I had to contract myself to the army — and this was supposedly more than a job, it was a service, a duty to our country. Even though I needed to take care of myself, I bought into this pitch, this lie of glory and American exceptionalism.
Patriotism and a sense of duty were there, too, but I needed a job. I needed college money. I needed health care, I needed food and water. I had to contract myself to the army.
I’ve experienced deep feelings of betrayal. We call this moral injury, with symptoms similar to PTSD. In the military there are two contradicting cultures. There is one strain that says, do it yourself, be tough, do what you can before you ask for help. There is another strain that says go seek help. The stigmas that those seeking help used to face have decreased in recent years. We now hear more about people being deployed to Iraq multiple times. We can see here the shame tactics of the army, which says, we can keep going on, even when it’s hard and we’re hurting. That culture carries through every part of being in the military: working fourteen hour days, seven days a week, with only two weeks off; getting married, divorced and raising kids, staying in shape, getting an education and being promoted. There is a whole culture of toughness that measures how much you have suffered. The more you suffered, the greater you were, with more honor, more glory. A true testament of loyalty to the nation.
I’ve experienced deep feelings of betrayal. We call this moral injury, with symptoms similar to PTSD.
When we leave the military, that suffering becomes our way of life in the civilian world. This is like playing the game chicken with your whole life, waiting to see how much suffering you can tolerate before it becomes an emergency. And people thank us for our service, but we have all of this inner suffering. What they are thanking us for is being in pain. We are heroes because of this pain.
These words are difficult for me to say.