After the Gulf War: Relief, Guilt and Love : Latino Support Groups' Members Await Returning Veterans With Open Arms


Ramon Tovar, hands clutching a creased letter, slowly walked into a support center for Latinos with loved ones in the Persian Gulf.

"I want to send a message to my son," he quietly told a volunteer.

Although the war against Iraq was long over, Tovar had not yet heard from his 22-year-old son, Ramon Jr. "Right now, I'm in suspense," Tovar said. "I think he's alive, (but) I don't know where he is."

Other parents at the center were also relieved that the war was over, but they did not want to celebrate until their sons, daughters and other loved ones were back home.

The center, started in the first days of the war, has continued to help people make contact with soldiers and to provide group therapy sessions in which parents and family members could express their feelings and worries.

"These people have really united and come forward to talk about their feelings. That's one of the best things that happened," said Bertha Sanchez, a family counselor who started Support for Latino Military Families. The group's center in Lincoln Heights has served more than 600 families.

Parents have nicknamed Sanchez " la madrina ," or "the godmother" of the soldiers in the Gulf, Sanchez said with a smile.

She looked on while Tovar, leaning intently over a nearby table, tried to cram two months' worth of local happenings onto a one-page fax letter to his son.

Tovar said he planned to attend more of Sanchez's group meetings as he waited for his son's return.

"I like to see the rest of the fathers (at the group sessions), because I know they have the same thoughts I have," he said, taking off his glasses and wiping his eyes.

In the midst of Tovar's complex feelings was a sense of pride.

"Dad, don't worry about me," Tovar's son had written in a Jan. 8 letter. "I know I have a job to do and I'm proud to serve."

"I feel so good about that," the elder Tovar said.

The start of the war in January had left some families on the home front feeling lost in the bureaucratic maze of the military. Sanchez went to an Army recruiting office for information about her sons, Jesse and Marco Antonio Puebla, both serving in the Gulf.

But, she said, she was treated rudely. Sanchez figured Latino parents who do not speak English would feel even more isolated.

She looked for Spanish-speaking support groups but couldn't find any, so she started one with her sister, Dolores. The Latin American Women's Professional Assn. let the two use its offices.

Latinos soon started dropping by the center. Some of them were undocumented immigrants who shied away from government offices. Their sons had been born in this country, were U.S. citizens and had volunteered to serve in the military.

At the center, the parents found solace with other families. Sanchez, who dropped a part-time job to run the center, has held group discussions each weeknight with the help of her sister and other counseling professionals.

"That's how I cope with my own personal fears," she said. "I have to do something, and if I can help other people, it helps me."

In group meetings, many parents have expressed their pride at knowing that their children served in the Gulf, Sanchez said. But along with pride came feelings of guilt.

As the war raged, parents would cry at the meetings, lamenting that they had encouraged their children to join the military to learn discipline or get training for a job. The mothers and fathers worried that the decision could have resulted in injury or death for their children.

Even with the war's end, "they still feel guilty, because they have learned that they appreciate their (children) now more than ever," Sanchez explained.

"Sometimes we let years go by without saying, 'I love you,' " Sanchez told parents at one group session. "Let's promise ourselves that we will say that every morning."

One parent taking that lesson to heart is Gloria Conant, a mother of 11 whose youngest child, Maria Lomeli-Conant, returned from the Gulf on March 9.

Conant hurried to buy balloons and other party decorations when she got the call that her daughter would be coming home that night. Maria was greeted at Los Angeles International Airport by her family and some members of her mother's support group.

Afterward, the group got together to celebrate.

"It was very emotional," Gloria Conant said. The soldier's nephews played the piano and led everyone in singing the National Anthem. A niece, Paula, 7, saved $2 for her aunt since December and gave it to her along with a letter expressing her love.

"We can't believe that she's here safe and sound. We love her so much," her mother said.

Maria Lomeli-Conant, 21, is scheduled to leave once again in April for eight more months of Army service at Fort Riley, Kan.

As other soldiers return home, they also will find help available at the center. The families have grown close, and "all of us want the boys to know each other," Sanchez said.

For the time being, la madrina could only look at the dozens of photos lining one wall. Tovar was still writing his message and took a break to show Sanchez a photograph of his son.

Sanchez wanted to pin it with the other photos, but Tovar wouldn't let go. "It's the only one I have," he said softly.

Then, looking at a sign above the soldiers' pictures reading "Love and Respect for You," he smiled and watched as Sanchez pinned the photo to the wall.

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