SANTO DOMINGO — Wilkin Cuello González sits in a wheelchair in the small living room of a humble home that he can barely afford to rent. The Army lieutenant digs into his memories and remembers the first time he ran his fingers through the cold white sand in which the war took place.
It was Feb. 11, 2004. After almost 12 hours of traveling on a bus from Kuwait to Diwaniyah, a city south of Baghdad, González — along with about 300 other Dominican soldiers — made it to a remote area by nightfall. It was bitterly cold for González and many of his fellow soldiers who had never before experienced such low temperatures. Many of them had never left their native island-nation before.
Between 2003 and 2004, several small countries sent hundreds of soldiers to Iraq to assist the United States in rebuilding efforts there as part of the so-called Coalition of the Willing. The Dominican Republic sent 600 men in two deployments, making them the first generation of military men in the history of the country to participate in a war abroad.
Some young men, like González, said they volunteered to enlist with hopes of a better future, fed by financial rewards promised by their government. A decade after leaving Iraq, his time served in the war has garnered little acknowledgment from the U.S. and even less from his own country where protections such at a G.I Bill do not exist.
El Nuevo Herald interviewed 10 Dominican soldiers as part of a fellowship by the International Center for Journalists. Most, who agreed to speak on condition of not being identified for fear of losing their jobs, described symptoms often associated with post traumatic stress disorder. But in a country where psychiatric problems are laced with negative stigmas, few are willing to admit they were affected by the conflict.
“Services for veterans don’t exist here,” said González, 34, who had an accident a few months after returning from Iraq and is wheelchair-bound. “That’s over there [in the U.S] where veterans have a hospital and people stop and say ‘hello’ to them when they see them in uniform and they receive preferential treatment when they travel on an airplane, but not here.”
The agreement to support the United States in the intervention in Iraq turned out to be one of the most unpopular measures by then President Hipolito Mejía and even led to the resignation of the Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time, Hugo Tolentino Dipp.
“Wars are terrible almost always, even for the winners, because they leave behind a terrible sequel of pain and problems,” said Tolentino Dipp, who now serves as a member of Congress. “I never knew how affected these young men had returned home from Iraq.”
As if trying to hold back tears, González keeps his eyes fixed on his living room ceiling as he talks about his dream.
“I went to Iraq with illusions,” he says. “I wanted to have a better life, a house that was a little bit bigger, a car.”
González said that as a solider, he wanted to experience war and let himself be seduced by promises made by his superiors of receiving compensation upon his return. He said he also was promised new housing that was to be built for returning soldiers. Those deployed received their regular salaries while they were overseas. González got no bonus or housing upon his return.
Nine out of 10 men interviewed by el Nuevo Herald in August and September offered similar tales of broken promises. The amount of money they said they were promised varies depending on rank, but the average promised stipend was $400 for every two weeks they remained out of the country.
“In the military no one signs any papers,” said a veteran from the first deployment, which took place July of 2003. “You simply do what your superior says and that’s it. I don’t know why they felt a need to make false promises, if in any case, we had to follow orders.”
Almost two years after returning from Iraq, some veterans said they received a one-time payment but it was much smaller than originally offered, fluctuating between $500 and $1,200. A public records request by el Nuevo Herald to the Dominican Republic’s Ministry of Defense for documents tied to the deployments went unanswered. The ministry also did not respond to requests for interviews.
“It’s wrong to play with the dignity of a man and the Dominican government played with the dignity of 600,” said the veteran. “And we have to remain quiet and not protest. This has made me think that military institutions are like a dictatorship.”
González, who agreed to share his story because he’s no longer on active duty, lives in the same poor neighborhood where he said goodbye to his family before going off to war.
He shares one of the two rooms in his house with his wife Bartolina Medina Rosario. His four children, Onix, 18, and his daughters Estephanie, 17, Luz Esther, 14, and Cristal, 10, sleep in the second room.
The lieutenant now earns $190 from the military and his wife pulls in $70 a month selling lottery tickets in a street booth. They pay $160 in monthly rent. The family routinely skips breakfast and sometimes there is not enough money for dinner.
In González’s room, there’s barely enough space for his bed, a drawer and a nightstand. His military uniforms hang from a string in a closet without doors. Next to his boots, are two old wheels for his wheelchair.
González was paralyzed from the waist down 10 months after returning home from Iraq. He was on his roof trying to repair a television antenna. The antenna hit a live wire and González was struck by an electric shock so strong, it knocked him to the street. He broke his backbone, three ribs, a clavicle and his left hand, which had a gaping hole.
He spent three months in the hospital and was discharged with an open wound in his left leg caused by a pressure ulcer that required a skin transplant. His father Carlos Alberto Cuello, who remained at his son’s side during his hospital stay, had been out trying to borrow money to pay for his son’s surgery when he was run over by a bus. Cuello died in the hospital from a pulmonary embolism. González found out three days later. By the time he got to the hospital, the body had been sent to a pauper’s grave.
“I had such a deep depression, because it wasn’t just getting used to the fact that I had to remain in a wheelchair but also that I lost my father,” he said. “That’s what hurt me the most.”
González wanted to take his life and contemplated several ways of doing so without causing much alarm. He could use a cocktail of pills, poison or a rope. One afternoon, he locked himself in his room and began tapping his head with a revolver. He closed his eyes and thought of the sand in Iraq.
“I thought ‘sh-t, I made it alive from Iraq and now I’m going to die here in a wheelchair?’”
He remembered the long flight to Iraq, the coldness of the sand in his hands, the promise of a better life. Then he placed the gun on his lap.
A white sand hourglass rests peacefully on a corner of the former Minister of Defense’s desk.
Jose Miguel Soto Jimenez sits up in his brown leather chair behind the large wooden desk covered with books, two lap tops and an ashtray with a half-smoked cigar. This is the office from where Soto Jimenez now directs his political organization, known as V República [Fifth Republic].
Soto Jimenez said that as minister of defense, he sent his best trained men to Iraq and denied that the soldiers were promised compensation or the U.S. government had provided any money for the troop’s expenses.
“We covered all costs, absolutely. In fact, we even took ammunition,” he said. “If politically there was any benefit for our participation in this, it was obtained on a political plane.”
Before the soldiers’ first deployment to Iraq, Soto Jimenez said he went to the U.S. embassy and asked for a stipend for the soldiers.
“The answer from the embassy, which I understood clearly, was that they weren’t mercenaries but members of the armed forces.”
He said each member of the first troop received $250 from the Dominican government before departing. Soto Jimenez visited the soldiers in Iraq during Christmas and gave them $200 more, he said.
“That was a gift from the president,” said Soto Jimenez. “I thought he gave them too much.”
Coalition of the Willing
In the summer of 2003, President George W. Bush announced that a group of countries — including Honduras, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic — had offered their support to the Iraq invasion by sending troops as well as logistical support. A short time later, several media reports were published about the benefits that several of those countries obtained in exchange for their public support of the invasion. These nations had procured financial aid, the cancellation of debts or improved diplomatic relationships with the United States.
What did the Dominican Republic receive? The answer remains unknown.
Requests for information from both the U.S. Department of State and former President Mejía went unanswered.
In May 2004, Mejía pulled all remaining Dominican soldiers from Iraq citing the removal of troops that were part of the coalition, including Spain and Honduras. By then, opposition to the war was strong. Critics argued that there was no understanding of the Dominican troops’ mission in Iraq and news of attacks suffered by soldiers on the ground raised the level of concern on the island.
“Our tasks were not very clear,” said a veteran. “When we started asking questions, they told us that our responsibilities included convoy security, combustible transfer and guarding a water plant so that the water was not stolen by insurgents.”
One of the missions was to safeguard a stadium where the families of Iraqi soldiers who had been killed lined up to receive compensation, said the veteran. During that assignment, the Dominican soldier thought of his wife in Santo Domingo. In phone conversations, she had told him that she had received only one bag of food that the government had promised it would deliver monthly to family members of soldiers serving in Iraq.
As he thought of his wife’s complaint, two cars suddenly rammed toward the hundreds of people lined up at the stadium and then there was an explosion. The Dominican soldier instinctively covered his head and hit the ground. The survivors ran toward the exit and when the soldier finally came back to his senses and went inside the stadium to try to help, he saw legs, arms and heads scattered all over the floor.
“That same day I decided that my mission was to survive and return home alive,” said the veteran. “I still have nightmares about that day.”
As he recounted the horror, the mother of his four-year-old son stood behind him making circles with her finger beside her head, symbolizing a man gone mad. “This is how he came back from Iraq,” she said.
The gesture has become a common reference to Dominican veterans.
The War at Home
González returned home under arrest. He had a fight with another soldier, threw his helmet at him and broke one of his fingers. The incident cost him a 30-day punishment, which he concluded in a military jail cell in Santo Domingo.
Now, all of this is nothing but a bitter memory.
Every Saturday, González spends half his day in school. He’s finishing the eighth grade in an adult education program. During the week, he works at his house repairing small appliances to make ends meet.
His escape is sports.
His friend, Daniel “Willy” Figueroa, a neighbor who got polio as a child and who has a leg that never fully developed, convinced him to attend a rehabilitation center where González started exercising to overcome his depression.
When he ran his first marathon, his family was waiting for him at the finish line. Now González dreams of participating in the New York Marathon.
“All of life is a war,” said González at his birthday party on Sept. 11. “But I’m winning it.”