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A combat veteran's struggle of the soul

Greg Valentini's room in Hollywood is bigger than a jail cell, but not by much. It's a home, though, and better than lockup.

"I'm sick of going to jail," he says, telling me he can't even remember how many times he's been arrested since his second tour with the Army ended in 2004.

Valentini is a tall, bulky man of 33, a die-hard Clippers fan who's fidgety as a kid. While seated on a chair, his feet tap, his weight shifts. It's as if he might run, or as if there's something in him that can't be quieted.

There's a lot of that weightless stirring in the converted church where Valentini lives, a place of recovery for nearly 40 men who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Having survived war, they came home and discovered they couldn't handle peace. Some ended up homeless, others landed in jail, and now they're trying to make sense of their lives in a residential program run by Volunteers of America.

"I try to stay busy," says Valentini, revealing his simple strategy for getting through each day. He reads, plays basketball, watches television and goes to school at Los Angeles City College.

On Thursday morning, he climbed out of bed and went to his psychology class. After school, he took a nap to rest up for his evening anthropology class. There's a red Long Beach City College batting helmet on his dresser and a little poster on his desk that says "Draft Beer, Not Soldiers."

Not that this son of a Vietnam vet regrets having enlisted in the year 2000, after finding little joy in a job with the Lakewood parks department.

"There were two reasons I signed up," says Valentini, who grew up middle class with a dad who raised him alone and still works in heating and air conditioning in Lakewood. "The first is that my dad said you have a right to say what you want if you've served. And the other reason was education."

The G.I. Bill, in other words, would send him to college. But in 2000, he couldn't know that he'd have to pay tuition by serving in two wars, first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq, with the 101st Airborne Division.

Six years later, Valentini can still hear the fury and chaos, see himself freezing in his first firefight in Kandahar, feel the butt of the rifle that a buddy used to bust him in the chops and snap him out of paralysis.

He began shooting, and shooting, and shooting, and during nine bloody months of heavy combat in Afghanistan, Valentini came to understand fear, absorb it, get comfortable with it. What was fear of death but a reverence for life?

"I appreciated how beautiful the country was," he says of Afghanistan. "The mountains, the clean air. I wouldn't have minded dying there."

I let Valentini's thought linger, scribble the words in my notebook and pause over them, wondering what it would be like to feel that sort of dark clarity. The mission called for flushing the Taliban out of caves, and Valentini says there were times he could see the eyes of his enemies. They were like "primitive warriors," he says, hinting at a level of respect for their willingness to die.

When I ask how many members of his own unit he lost in Afghanistan and Iraq, he tries earnestly to come up with a fair number. Yes, he saw a lot of men go down, many of them close friends. He doesn't know what kept him alive, but such is the random nature of war. There's a mysterious indiscriminate force out there on the battlefield, and it goes on tormenting you years after the shooting stops.

"I don't know, probably not quite a dozen," Valentini says.

He says he felt lost when he came home. There were jittery nights when he noticed a familiar glow, looked to the heavens and found a full moon filling the Southern California sky. The Taliban used the light of a full moon to launch attacks on his unit.

He knew he had a problem on his first Fourth of July back home, when he broke into a sweat at the sound of fireworks and flares in Lakewood. Valentini felt unappreciated and unknowable. How could he explain to anyone where he'd been?

He drank, he got hooked on meth, he frustrated the dad he dearly loves, he moved out of the house and lived in a tent by Long Beach Airport. At night he'd gaze up at the same stars that shine over Afghanistan.

Thieving and selling the goods kept Valentini supplied with food and drugs. He got caught, went to jail, then back to his airport bunker. The burglary of a Lakewood country club was a bigger deal. His haul included a big flat-screen TV that he sold for $100, but he got nailed and was hit with a two-year sentence.

Last August, after a few months in jail, he was bounced over to the VOA program in Hollywood to serve out his time and get drug treatment and counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Getting sprung from jail was a break for a man who served. A chance to make a life.

It's impossible not to pull for him, but can he do it?

Valentini is honest. He doesn't know.

But he likes the manager of the program. Jim Zenner, who is roughly Valentini's age, also served, came home with issues, then got his master's degree in social work. Now he tries to help fellow soldiers pick themselves up.

Valentini can see himself doing that — going from trained killer to social worker. And to that end, he tells me, it's time to end our conversation for the day.

He goes to his room, gets his textbook and walks along Sunset Boulevard on his way to anthropology class, years of school ahead of him, lots of pain still to bury, so much at stake.

To be continued.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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