Even though his short time in Iraq cost him his powers of speech and memory, his independence and his wife—the divorce became official in November—Chavez bears the military no grudge. He remains an Army man.
Among his self-designed tattoos is a bar code between his shoulder blades. The angel wings came later.
Chavez entered West Point in 1998, after graduating from St. Michael’s High School in Santa Fe. In July 2003, in Mosul, a grenade struck and buried him in rubble.
The extent of his injuries wasn’t immediately obvious. But months later, on a snowboarding trip in Austria, Chavez collapsed. Friends rushed him to a hospital where he underwent 13 surgeries over five days. His organs had rotted. Doctors said a rare bacteria he’d contracted had flourished after the initial shock to his system.
The cure was penicillin, to which Chavez is allergic.
His fever hit 108 degrees—possibly causing his brain damage. Chavez was flown to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where he remained in a coma. On New Year’s Eve, his family decided to pull the plug. But when they went to sign the papers, the office was closed. “Everybody took it as an omen,” his father, Gerald, says.
Since then, Chavez has defied every pessimistic diagnosis. After 2½ years in military hospitals, he rejoined his family on San Jose Street. He can walk—unsteadily. He can talk—barely. His days are filled with therapies—massage, speech, art, horseback riding—for which his family pays partly out of pocket.
Yet Chavez feels lucky. Last year, he traveled to Oregon for the funeral of a West Point classmate, Drew Jensen. Paralyzed by a sniper’s bullet, Jensen asked to be taken off life support. In his last words, he thanked his old comrades.
Lucky or not, Chavez is, as his father fears, isolated—an isolation even more total than that of his able-bodied comrades, whose bloody memories put them forever at a distance from loved ones.
If you believe the incoming administration, thousands of young men and women will soon return home from foreign deserts. They have changed since we saw them last. They are angry and hurt. And we have nothing for them to do.
Joe Callan, 30, left the Marine Corps in February, after three tours in Iraq in which he lost more friends than he cares to count. Now he lives with his wife, a University of New Mexico nursing student, and two daughters, in an asbestos-ridden campus apartment that reminds him of base housing.
Sometimes, Callan thinks about that famous picture from V-J Day, 1945, of the sailor kissing the nurse. There will be no V-I Day, 2009.
“If the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were to end today, nobody’d give a shit. Nobody’d even notice,” he says.
Callan has a point. New Mexico’s only shelter for homeless veterans, a renovated EconoLodge in Albuquerque, may close for lack of funds. Approximately 70 vets room there, including a few “kids” from today’s wars. “They’re coming home pretty messed up,” Garfield Lopez, lead monitor at the New Mexico Veterans Integration Center, says.
As Callan says, “shooting shit” doesn’t translate well to civilian life. The New Mexico Department of Veterans Services points vets to its “featured employer,” Walmart.
“Fuck Walmart,” Callan says.
In Iraq, Callan oversaw 30 men and $10 million worth of equipment. “I get out, and I can’t get a fucking job as a manager of a grocery store because I don’t have a college fucking degree,” he says.
Callan just started an internship at an Albuquerque charter school, the Native American Community Academy. After that, who knows? He jokes about joining a Somali pirate gang. He has thought seriously about leaving America. Why not? We left him.
“Everything that’s happened in Iraq is the fault of every single person in this country. It’s their apathy and lack of involvement and awareness,” Callan says. “Nobody cares.”