In California's San Joaquin Valley, mixed feelings about war in Iraq

Fresno BeeMarch 18, 2013 

Ten years later, Arlean Nguyen of Fresno still harbors the anguish she lived with as her only son fought in the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

"It's a nightmare I will never forget," she said Friday.

Anthony Lewis, a 23-year-old gunner in a Bradley Fighting Vehicle with the 3rd Infantry Division, "was in the thick of it," Nguyen said. He did two tours in Iraq -- the initial invasion in 2003 and combat patrols in 2005 -- and was nearly killed three times, his mother said.

During those tours, Nguyen stayed glued to the television to get news of the war. She said she feared hearing a knock on her front door.

"He saw things that no human being should see, like charred remains, body parts and a fellow soldier who was burned so badly he could only be identified by his wedding ring," Nguyen said.

Lewis was discharged from the Army in 2007. Now 33, he works in the computer industry in Georgia, his mother said.

"I was fortunate because my son came back alive," Nguyen said. "I feel sad for all those families who had to bury their children."

Valley families have done their part in the fight against terrorism in the Middle East, particularly in the last 10 years.

Fighter planes from Lemoore Naval Air Station have gone on bombing missions in the Middle East and provided air cover for troops. Hundreds of soldiers from the California Army National Guard in Fresno have fought in combat.

Meanwhile, California's Air National Guard 144th Fighter Wing in Fresno has provided homeland security by patrolling the skies over the western U.S.

"It's been an ongoing mission," said Capt. Will Martin, spokesman for the California National Guard in Sacramento.

But with war comes casualties.

When 21-year-old Alejandro Jose "AJ" Pardo was killed in July last year, he became the fourth person from the Porterville area to die in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and the 45th in the central San Joaquin Valley to die in battle or training overseas since 2003, according to an unofficial tally.

Among the dead are 11 Clovis Unified graduates and one former student who did not graduate, school district spokeswoman Kelly Avants said.

Hardest hit was Buchanan High School, which had eight war casualties. Clovis High had two casualties and Clovis East had one. The former student who died while on active duty attended Clovis High and Gateway.

Buchanan High and Clovis East have built memorials for their dead, Avants said. Buchanan High also incorporates stars into many team uniforms and has had moments of silence during graduation ceremonies, Avants said.

Fred Machado, 81, a Korean War veteran and farmer from Easton, said the loss of lives was not in vain.

Once terrorists destroyed the Twin Towers in New York City and bombed the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., Machado said, "We had no choice but to go and fight."

Machado, who served in the Navy from 1951 to 1955, praised former President George W. Bush for taking the fight to the enemy. "It's better to fight on their soil than on our land," he said.

"A lot of young kids gave their lives," Machado said. "We are all proud of them."

As bombs exploded 7,500 miles away in Iraq in March 2003, Valley residents went to church to pray for the troops, while anti-war protesters gathered on street corners like Shaw and Blackstone avenues in Fresno, where their message of peace clashed with blunt criticism in the form of honking motorists.

In the next few years, protests grew in the Valley. But in recent years, they have been nearly nonexistent.

For survivors of the war, the U.S. government has emphasized helping them, said Anthony Santoya, spokesman for the VA Central California Health Care System in Fresno, which includes a 57-bed medical center and clinics in Tulare, Merced and Oakhurst.

'We're seeing more Iraqi veterans every day," Santoya said.

Many of them suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. Some of them have traumatic brain injuries, Santoya said.

"The VA is committed to our veterans," he said. "We have the best facility to address their issues."

Some veterans such as Orosi High School graduate Bryan Ramirez say they were fortunate to survive unscathed.

Ramirez, 31, said he participated in the March 2003 invasion of Iraq as an Army soldier. He recalled being in Kuwait waiting for orders to invade Iraq. "We came in right behind the bombing raids," Ramirez said. "I remember seeing a lot of bodies and thinking, 'Holy cow.' "

Back then Ramirez was 21 and single with no worries. Today, he is a family man with a young daughter and a home in Dinuba and a job with the Friant Water Authority.

"It's a good feeling to come home, knowing you served your country," he said. "But, unfortunately, I also know a lot of soldiers didn't come home."

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