War: Merced area veterans share experiences

vpatton@mercedsunstar.comNovember 10, 2012 

Noted journalist and award-winning radio commentator Elmer Davis once said: "This nation will remain the land of the free only so long as it is the home of the brave."

Whether it's been the sands of Iwo Jima, the jungles of Vietnam or the mountainous terrain of Kandahar, time and time again Merced County veterans have answered the call to serve when needed.

At noontime Sunday, thousands will gather on Main Street in downtown Merced to pay honor to those who've put their lives on the line to protect the nation. (STORY CONTINUES AFTER VIDEO)

In recognition of Veterans Day, the Sun-Star interviewed several Merced County veterans from many wars. Many share commonalities, such as the emotional scars from watching fellow soldiers make the ultimate sacrifice in the combat zone. Others have stories about the difficulties of readjusting to civilian life after having witnessed traumatic events only few can comprehend.

Perhaps the greatest common denominator among all who were interviewed, however, is their profound sense of pride and patriotism. Despite the difficulties that go along with serving during wartime, they're all proud of their time in the military.

The first part of this package profiles younger veterans who've served during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The second part of the story, contained on pages four and five of the Sun-Star's Veterans Day Special Section, profiles veterans who served during World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

Army Staff Sgt. Juan Polino, Iraq War combat veteran, three tours of duty

The oldest of five children, Planada native Army Staff Sgt. Juan Polino wanted to serve in the military since the age of 9.

By the end of his senior year at Le Grand High, it was more than a dream to Polino, it was a ticket away from Merced County and into the world. "Four days after graduation, I was gone," he recalled.

Polino has served 12 years in the Army, many spent with 3rd Cavalry Regiment, known as the "Brave Rifles."

"I went over there (to Iraq), I was just a baby," Polino said. "I thought I was going to join the military, but I never thought I was going to go to war."

His first deployment was in March 2003, as part of the second wave of military forces entering Iraq. He served in Ramadi, Al Asad Airbase, and the notorious "Triangle of Death" south of Baghdad.

Since then, Polino said, he's known 42 military men and women who've died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Among them were fellow Merced County residents Karina Lau and Cesar Granados.

Polino recalled speaking to Lau the day she died. A resident of Livingston, Lau was killed in Iraq on Nov. 2, 2003, with 15 other American soldiers when their transport helicopter was shot down in an attack west of Baghdad. She was heading home on a two-week furlough.

Polino said he was on that helicopter before it had taken off, but the seat was too small for him, so he had to get off. Someone then called out to Lau. "Hey you, you little one. You get in here."

Lau then stepped into the helicopter and sat down, and Polino stepped off. She looked at Polino and said "See you in Cali."

"I'll see you in Cali," he replied.

An hour and a half later, Polino said, Lau's helicopter was shot down. Tears still well up in his eyes when telling the story. "I couldn't go to her funeral," he said. "That hit me hard."

That's not the only brush with death Polino's had in Iraq. He's survived six blasts from IEDs (improvised explosive devices). As a result, he still suffers agonizing headaches, from which he can find little relief.

He was also shot in the chest but survived, thanks to the protective vest he was wearing. Although the bullet didn't pierce the skin, it left an enormous bruise.

"I couldn't breathe, I couldn't swallow, I couldn't eat. It hurt so bad," he remembered. "I had the biggest bruise ... I couldn't cough, I couldn't laugh for like a week and a half. I was just laying there."

Perhaps his closest encounter with death, however, came on while he was driving a Bradley fighting vehicle. During the mission, he heard something strike his Bradley.

After returning to base and checking his vehicle, Polino saw a rocket-propelled grenade stuck in the side of it. By some miracle it hadn't exploded.

"So many close calls," he said.

Polino currently serves in the Army National Guard as part of the 79th Infantry Brigade Combat Team.

Readjusting to civilian life in the states hasn't been easy. For the past year, Polino's been searching for work to supplement his National Guard job. Despite filling out numerous applications and pounding the pavement, he hasn't been successful thus far.

"Finding a job in the Valley for a soldier is not easy," he said. "Right now, I would rather be deployed, than be here in the states."

In the meantime, he hopes an upcoming appointment with a specialist will help him deal with the chronic headaches. And he holds out hope a job's around the corner.

Regardless, Polino has no regrets about joining the Army or serving in Iraq. He also hopes to eventually serve in Afghanistan. "Probably because of my military family. My band of brothers. For those guys. I'd do it all over again," he said.

Polino added, "I am a guardian of freedom. I will sacrifice my life for those that I love."

Army Staff Sgt. Jason Young, Iraq combat veteran, and Sgt. Bianca Terrazas

Army Staff Sgt. Jason Young and Army Sgt. Bianca Terrazas have special insights into the meaning of Veterans Day. Both serve locally in the Veterans' Honors Program for the Army National Guard.

They attend the funerals of veterans of all branches of the service and perform military honors. "We fire three volleys out of rifles, we play taps on bugle, and we fold and present the flag," Young, 33, explained. "So we see veterans all the time."

Young, a Los Banos native who now lives in Dos Palos, has spent the past 15 years in the Army (three active duty, and 12 in the National Guard). He also served a tour in Baghdad from 2004-06. While Terrazas hasn't served in combat, her husband Victor Terrazas currently serves in the National Guard's 140th Chemical Company in Kuwait, where he's been since March.

"It's difficult, because I have two kids," said Terrazas, 29. "So I am essentially a single mom right now, dealing with taking care of the kids."

Young and Terrazas both say meeting with veterans and hearing their stories is very humbling. Young said he feels a special kinship with older veterans:

"I see the VFW members. Other people see old men, but to me, I see Pearl Harbor, I see World War II, I see Vietnam. I can almost sense what they've been through. And it makes me proud. It makes me proud to be able to say that I served."

While Young said serving in Iraq in combat was "hell," some of his proudest moments came from interacting with local people -- a side of the military that often doesn't make the headlines.

"The Iraqi people actually loved us. They would shake our hands. They knew that we were there for a good reason, and that we were there to help them," he said. "And the ones that were not our friends, they were the enemy, and they were few and far between."

Young was also present when the first presidential election since the fall of Saddam Hussein happened in Iraq. His unit provided security for the balloting sites. It's a moment in history he's glad to have been a part of.

"We got to patrol around and make sure nothing happened during the balloting," he said.

Still, there were hardships and tragedies. Young said 13 people from his unit, the 184th Infantry Battalion, "didn't make it back." He knew 11 of those soldiers personally. And during his first six months back home, Young had "survivors' guilt."

"I would think to myself, 'Why did I survive, and this person didn't come back,' " he said. "Luckily I had a support chain. I knew who to talk to, whenever I needed help. My chain of command, as well as other soldiers and friends."

Young said the hardest aspect of returning home from a combat zone is dealing with the fact that you're no longer there.

"Because I was there for so long, it became habitual to always have my weapon, to always have my body armor, and be in this uniform all the time," he said. "When I came back, sometimes I'd wake up in the middle of the night and would start freaking out because I couldn't find my weapon."

Transitioning from being a soldier to being a responsible father and a husband also took some getting used to.

"After my body came back, it took my mind a while to come back from Iraq," he said. "I have friends that have been dealing with issues, and they won't talk to anybody. And it tears them up inside."

He's known six soldiers who've committed suicide since coming back. He advises fellow soldiers and those who've served to seek help when returning from the war zone, as opposed to hiding their emotions.

"I try to tell everybody who I meet and become friends with, as much as I should," he said. "For me, to talk about it, it gets it out. And it's not bottled up."

Even with the difficulties of military life, however, Young said joining gave him the opportunity to have a purpose. And for that, he's eternally thankful. "I want to look back when I am 67 years old and be able to say that I did something that mattered, versus (doing) something for myself," he said.

"I hope and I pray, that when I pass away, they say that this person did something that made a difference for more than just himself."

Army Pfc. Kenneth Garcia, Afghanistan veteran, one tour of duty

Private First Class Kenneth Garcia of Merced said while he loves his country will all his heart, his motivation for joining the Army in March 2009 was supporting his young daughter.

Along the way, Garcia said he's learned many important life lessons and grown as a human being. "I was pretty unstable," Garcia said, referring to the person he was before joining the Army.

"(Now) I have a lot more patience. Before, I had no patience at all. But I think that's regardless of the deployment. The Army just teaches you to be a little more patient."

From April 2011 until early January, Garcia served as a scout with 2nd Battalion 34th Armored Regiment, part of the Army's 1st Infantry Division in Afghanistan, in the Kandahar area.

Garcia's survived two IED explosions, and received traumatic brain injuries as a result. He was awarded the Purple Heart for the injuries suffered during the second incident. Because of the blasts, he still has lingering tinnitus (ear ringing).

Even with the traumatic injuries he's suffered, however, Garcia said he'd go back to Afghanistan if asked -- to take care of unfinished business.

Garcia said his mind-set concerning Afghan people changed a great deal after arriving there. Garcia said many Afghans go out of their way to help the American soldiers, help that was definitely appreciated.

"I actually went there thinking 'they let it happen to their country and now my country is going to help them. It's their fault.' But I changed really quick," he said. "Believe it or not, there are innocent people over there ... The Taliban would kill them if they knew that they were coming (to help) us."

Garcia gave an example of Afghan farmer who'd show the troops where IEDs were hidden, which may have saved American lives.

"We'd try to give him rice, sugar, money, whatever, and he wouldn't even take it," Garcia said. "Because he knew that if the Taliban saw that we gave him stuff, they would know that he helped us."

Currently, Garcia is serving in the National Guard. For Garcia, readjusting to civilian life hasn't been as difficult as he thought it would be, although he does do some things differently now.

"I don't go out like I used to," he said. "I don't find pleasure in video games. I don't play video games. It would be nice, if in real life, you could just hit the reset button."

Garcia also doesn't sleep like he used to. "My body can feel tired, but my mind won't. My mind will keep working. Even about stuff that has nothing to do with the service, it just stays on."

Still, Garcia said the military definitely changed him and his views on life -- and he's glad that he made the decision to enlist.

He said the experience also made him much wiser. "If I could go back in time, before I enlisted, knowing now what would happen over there, I would do it again," he said.

For more profiles of Merced County veterans, click here

City Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsunstar.com.

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