FORT WORTH – In a few days, Francisco Martinez will land in Iraq.
He is one of tens of thousands of men and women who, with various motivations, enlisted in the armed forces, knowing that they’d someday end up there.
For Martinez, Iraq is a kind of perdition, a receptacle for all the dark emotions, anguish and guilt that have buffeted him for the last three years.
When Martinez steps off the airplane, he will be in the country that took his only son, a 20-year-old skateboarder and budding graphic artist whose loss is felt every single day of his father’s life.
This deployment – in fact, his entire enlistment – is completely his doing. Nobody forced this on Martinez, except maybe the sniper who put one well-placed bullet in Spc. Francisco G. Martinez on March 20, 2005, in Ramadi.
Joining the Air Force Reserve, after a 17-year break in his military service, was Martinez’s way of making sense of and coping with his son’s death, a way to remember him by being around young men his age serving their nation.
As a condition for her support, he promised his wife, Maria, that he wouldn’t volunteer for a tour in Iraq, that he would only go if ordered. But Martinez broke his promise this year and raised his hand, hating that he broke his word but feeling that he could not honorably serve with people doing more than him.
“He was such a part of me,” he said, “and a part of me died that day. But it is so important to keep him alive in some way. I can’t let such an important piece of me die.”
Martinez leaves for Iraq with all the usuals – rifle, night-vision goggles, cold-weather gear, a sleeping bag, in all hundreds of pounds of gear issued by the U.S. government.
Packed tightly in one of his trunks is his son’s camping chair, used by “Paquito” during his tour in Iraq. Big Francisco has always been known as Paco; by extension, his son was Paquito, a 2002 Eastern Hills High School graduate.
“My son sat in this chair,” Martinez said. “I’ve taken it on every exercise we’ve had, and now it’s going to Iraq with me.”
Martinez is old enough – 44 years – to be the father of many of the men he will share a trailer with in northern Iraq.
A computer programmer and systems analyst accustomed to a six-figure salary, Martinez now wears the stripes of a staff sergeant, the equivalent of a buck sergeant in the Army, pulling down half (about $4,400 a month) of what he used to earn.
As a member of the security forces responsible for protecting the combined Army and air base, he will work in a guard tower, perform searches, work the gates or patrol the fence lines, possibly all of them. He doesn’t know yet.
He will be deployed for six months, a long time by Air Force standards but only half the deployment of soldiers.
Martinez’s unit, the 610th Security Forces Squadron at Naval Air Station Fort Worth, is responsible for providing airmen for just such missions and has for several years. About 25 airmen from the Fort Worth unit will leave on this deployment.
The 610th has not sustained a casualty in Iraq.
He watched other men and women volunteer during his time in the unit, and he saw some get tagged for an involuntary deployment when there weren’t enough volunteers.
Increasingly he felt conspicuous because he had not deployed, while others had already been more than once. He felt the time had come for him to step up and fulfill his duty, promises to his wife or not.
“It just felt wrong to be the one guy who hadn’t deployed even once,” he said. “I could have always waited until they exhausted all the other people and called me up. But I wasn’t going to wait until all that happened. These are my friends and my co-workers.”
Monica, the 7-year-old daughter of Paco and Maria and the spoiled little sister of Paquito, moved her bed into her parents’ room a few weeks ago.
When her father leaves, she will move the bed out again and just start sleeping with her mother. Her father already carries a drawing by Monica of a little pond and a parent duck and two baby ducks and a big purple heart.
“I’m goin to miss you,” it says.
For all the difficulties and adjustments of this deployment, they seem to have fallen hardest on Monica, whose fears have reared up in drawings and nightmares.
“Going to Iraq, for her, means you don’t come back,” Martinez said. “She has had a very hard time with this.”
Martinez landed on an idea some months ago – to show his daughter that there are happy homecomings, that deployments don’t all end in funerals.
Three times, he took her to Dallas/Fort Worth Airport to see troops return home, some of them Martinez’s friends from the Air Force Reserve.
“We never received her brother, except in a casket,” he said. “I went with her for one motive, to see this is what it’s like when people come home. All these embraces and the happiness with these families. It was fantastic. We all needed to experience that.”
Unexpectedly, it steeled Martinez’s resolve to go to Iraq. The only way those embraces and tearful reunions happen, he reasoned, is because someone else stepped up and took their place overseas.
“I will have a direct impact on that happy reunion, that moment of pure joy,” he said. “I won’t actually get to see it, but I know what it will look like, and that’s a big deal to me. These are not strangers, either. I know them. I’ve gone to the family picnic with them, and their kids have played with my kid.
“Who knows? My altruism might fly out the window after I’ve been there three months and I’m sick of it, but for now, it helps me.”
It has always shocked people, especially people who know Martinez well, that he signed up for the military after Paquito’s death and volunteered for Iraq. He has always opposed the Iraq invasion, even before Paquito was killed, and nothing has shaken him from his belief that the war is wrong.
In that, he and his ex-wife, Paquito’s mother, Carmen Hernandez, are alike. Hernandez is a leader in a Puerto Rican organization, Madres Contra La Guerra, or Mothers Against War.
But his path is, of course, much different. The whole reason he joined the military was out of his conviction that – wrong war or not – he could do something to keep another young man alive.
“We are responsible for everybody’s security on that base,” he said. “For me, it’s very clear. It’s not at all abstract. If the Kurds and the Sunnis and Shia get along better and everyone’s lives are improved and they have fair elections, great. But my job is to make sure that everyone who is on that little clump of land comes back alive and well for their airport reunion. That transcends politics.”
Twice a month, Martinez drives to the Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery so he can talk to his son. He plans to go there this evening, for the last time this year.
He, the father, is now in the unenviable position of seeking his son’s approval.
“I have to live up to him,” he said, staring at the photo of Paquito given to him by his son’s old unit.
Now that it has been more than three years, he is increasingly aware that his son is forever stuck at 20 and everyone else is getting older. Every year, Paquito’s baby sister gets a year closer to his age.
“He doesn’t grow up,” he said. “I wanted him to grow up with me. There are times when I just want to immediately turn to him and share something. My fear is not that I’ll forget his voice. I have many digital recordings of that. The hardest part is that he is frozen in time, and that’s when I know he’s really gone.”
He wonders how he’ll react when he lands in Iraq. In the months after Paquito’s death, he wanted nothing more than to go to Ramadi and see what his son saw when he was shot, to learn more about his final days, to exact revenge on someone.
But grieving and learning to cope with a loss isn’t a static thing, and those thoughts aren’t the same as they once were.
“I get emotional about a lot of things, but I don’t think I will about that,” he said of finally setting foot in Iraq. “Honestly, I don’t know what I will feel like. Maybe it will be transformational, but right now it’s not like that. Right now I’m thinking about the job and what I have to do. It’s all work. It’s all mission.”
He points upstairs, where his wife and daughter are, by way of explanation.
“You don’t know how important it is that I make it back,” he said, and it is then that his voice catches and he pauses.
“They couldn’t take it again,” he said. “They are my motivation to remain focused on my job.”
CHRIS VAUGHN, 817-390-7547
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