The nightmares still plague him. The terrifying mortar attacks. The loss of an Albanian soldier and ally, mutilated by shrapnel. The Iraqi children, bloodied and battered, lined up for medical care at the U.S. base at Mosul.
Two years after returning from his service in Iraq, U.S. Army Spc. Jack Barrios, 26, is fighting sleeplessness, sudden angry outbursts, aversion to emotional intimacy and other fallout from his post-traumatic stress disorder.
But as he undergoes counseling and swallows anti-depressants, the soldier is fighting an even bigger battle: to keep his family from collapsing as his wife, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, faces deportation.
His wife, 23-year-old Frances, was illegally brought to the United States by her mother at age 6, learned of her status in high school and discovered just last year that removal proceedings have been started. Her possible deportation has left Barrios in panic as he contemplates life without her.
The Army reservist says his wife is the family’s anchor, caring for their year-old daughter and 3-year-old son and helping him battle his post-traumatic stress.
“She’s my everything,” Barrios said as he sat glumly in the family’s sparsely furnished but tidy Van Nuys apartment. “Without her, I can’t function. It would be like taking away a part of my soul.”
Hundreds of U.S. soldiers are facing the same trouble as they fight to legalize their spouses’ status, a difficult process that has affected their military readiness, according to Margaret Stock, a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves and an immigration attorney specializing in military cases.
Stock, speaking as a private attorney, said she gets at least one call a day from soldiers facing the deportation of spouses. Many are so stressed out they can’t concentrate on their jobs, she said.
“The whole military system depends on families being support networks for soldiers,” said Stock. “They’re an integral part of military readiness, so we need to take care of them.”
Concerned about the effect immigration problems are having on military families, U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) has held hearings on the issue and last year introduced a bill to give undocumented spouses of U.S. soldiers a chance at gaining legal status.
Lofgren, who heads the House immigration subcommittee, said she plans to include the provision for military families in the comprehensive immigration reform bill that could be unveiled early next year.
“It’s about respecting the American soldier and the sacrifices they have made,” Lofgren said.
The issue has divided traditional allies. Her bill was co-sponsored by two Republican members of the House Armed Services committee but opposed by their GOP colleagues on the House immigration subcommittee.
The American Legion spoke out against the bill, but the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America supported it.
“Our soldiers fight and, in some cases, give their lives to preserve the rule of law. It seems ironic indeed that some would propose to disregard the rule of law just as another reward or inducement to serve our country,” U.S. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) told the House immigration subcommittee at the May hearing last year.
But the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans group has made the issue of legal status for military families one of its legislative priorities.
“The last thing troops in the American military should be worrying about while deployed is the possibility that their spouses at home may be deported,” the group’s legislative agenda says.
The issue has also been highlighted in a new documentary, “Second Battle,” by the Brave New Foundation, a Culver City-based media group that has launched a film series exploring the effect of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars on Americans.
For most families like the Barrioses, the options are bleak. Because she entered U.S. illegally, Frances cannot apply for a green card unless she returns to her native country. If she did that, her illegal status would bar her from returning to this country for 10 years unless she got a waiver. Getting one is difficult, Stock said.
Some soldiers have quit the military to move with their spouses. Others have divorced or chosen to live apart, often to give their children a better life in America, Stock said.
A few have managed to attract high-level attention and receive legal status. In 2007, Michael Chertoff, then the secretary of Homeland Security, asked the courts to end removal proceedings against the illegal immigrant wife of Army Spc. Alex Jimenez, who went missing in action that year. The action, requested by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), allowed Jimenez’s wife to apply for a green card.
Jessica Dominguez, the Barrios family’s attorney, said one glimmer of hope is that Frances has been in the U.S. longer than 10 years. That gives her standing to seek cancellation of her removal orders by arguing that her deportation would cause her U.S. citizen husband and children “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship.”
To Jack Barrios, his wife is just as American as he is. She speaks better English than Spanish and has a high school diploma and ambitions to be a teacher. She has no criminal record.
Their roots in Van Nuys run deep. Jack was born in Los Angeles and moved to the Valley with his family as a child. They went to the same school, Erwin Elementary, where their son, Matthew, now attends preschool.
They live in the same complex on Oxnard Street where Frances Barrios grew up. The two-bedroom apartment is decorated with Jack’s military photos, an Army medal of commendation and a certificate of wartime service in Iraq.
When Jack announced in 2004 that he wanted to join the Army, Frances was apprehensive. They wanted to start a family and she worried about his deployment to dangerous areas. But Jack had made up his mind.
“You’ve got to give back something to this country for the freedoms we have,” Jack said then, reminding his wife of their blessings here. Jack’s sister, a pharmacist who lived in Guatemala, was shot and killed when her office refused to pay protection money to local gangs, he said.
The call for deployment to Iraq came in 2006, when Matthew was just a few months old. Frances said she was terrified, especially when she had to sign copies of her husband’s will and life insurance papers.
He returned a year later -- safe, but not sound.
When Frances Barrios tried to talk about how much her husband had changed after Iraq, she began to sob quietly.
He used to be a clown, she said, always the life of the party. Now, she said, he erupts in anger. He seems cold. He barely speaks. Not about his day. Not about his dreams. Certainly not about Iraq.
Sometimes, he wakes up in the middle of the night and sits in the darkened living room, mute and expressionless, staring straight ahead. When Frances asks what’s wrong, he doesn’t even acknowledge her, she said.
“I love him, but it does hurt,” she said, tears rolling down her cheeks. “He has changed so much, and I wish I had the other Jack back.”
Jack cannot easily express why he has changed so much. Maybe, he said, he shut down his emotions to get through the daily terrors in Iraq.
He said he is constantly on guard and can no longer stand crowds. He knows he is impatient with his children.
He knows he is stressed out by his daily life: a two-job, 15-hour workday that begins with him waking up at 3:30 a.m. to get to his first job as a driver for UPS, then to his second job at an auto parts firm.
And, he said, he knows that his life will collapse without his wife by his side.
As his parents speak of their pain, Matthew squeals with delight on his Playskool truck. Moon-faced Allanna gurgles and smiles as she crawls across the living room.
Whatever happens, the children, both U.S.-born citizens, will stay here. There is no future for them in Guatemala.
But their mother’s heart breaks at the thought of separation. “I’m with them all day,” Frances says of her children, sobbing. “I cook, I clean. It will be too much for Jack. It’s hard enough for him already.”
Barrios said his wife never intentionally broke any laws. She was just a small child when she was taken across the border without papers.
“I just want my girl to stay here and be part of this country,” he says. “Why should we have to break up our family? We just want to have the American Dream, just like everyone else.”