By Melissa DeGeso-Jones, Psy.D. Licensed Psychologist
Memorial Day is more than a day of remembrance to honor our fallen soldiers. It is also a day when our entire nation formally becomes a community to serve as witnesses to those who have personally lost their son/daughter, brother/sister, husband/wife, father/mother, and beloved friend.
While we may not have been there when they were told, or on the nights they cried alone, or for each of the birthdays, holidays and other anniversary dates when their hearts longed for their loved one’s return, we are here today to comfort and help them share the memories of their loved one.
With that in mind, I would like to dedicate this Memorial Day blog to Luz Yepes, a single-mom and her son, Specialist Giovanni Orozco.
A life-changing event can leave a deep mark on life as we know it. Don’t hesitate to take action against these issues today.
A Legacy to be Remembered
In November of 2010, a close friend of mine, retired Lieutenant Colonel Lisette Bonano, wrote to me from Afghanistan to tell me about a single-mom from Carrollwood who was grieving the loss of her oldest son. She facilitated an introduction between us via email and shortly thereafter, I had the honor of meeting Ms. Yepes.
Soon after, I invited her to a Military Appreciation event I was hosting and, to her surprise, was able to announce the approval of a scholarship I had established in her son’s name. Ms. Yepes was overwhelmed with mixed emotions. She smiled proudly upon hearing of her son’s legacy and cried sincerely as Command Sergeant Major Thorpe presented her with flowers and thanked her on behalf of the US Army for her son’s dedication and service.
An audience of college students, veterans, and their families applauded and stood witness to her bereavement. She shared pictures of her son, told his tragic story, and spoke about her loving memories of him. We all were able to “hold her” that night, and I hope to be able to provide her with yet another community of witnesses now as we all remember her son, Giovanni, five years later. His story and her loss have never left me.
Specialist Giovanni Orozco served as a military police officer and gunner in Iraq. While he and his mom were able to maintain communication throughout his deployment via email, he never spoke about the war. On one occasion; however, he wrote to his mom that he somehow felt changed,
“I just haven’t been the same lately and I find it hard for me to go back home and live among people.” “I want to move and stay to myself. I don’t feel like dealing with people for some reason, it’s almost like I can’t stand them. I hope that changes when I get home.”
Ms. Yepes never received the dreaded knock on her door or heard the words “Killed in Action” that so many back home fear but she did receive the unimaginable, a middle of the night phone call six-months after his return.
While Giovanni made it back home to Carrollwood, he was never able to leave the war behind in Iraq. In fact, his friends say he brought the war home with him. Giovanni struggled with PTSD in silence and attempted to resume a typical young-adult life without any help for what was haunting him.
Picking up the pieces with childhood friends, Giovanni decided to move out of his mom’s house. He and his friends got an apartment together and were planning to attend USF in the fall. His mom was hopeful but also concerned about the differences she observed in her son. She mentally compared the happy, affectionate, and loving teenager she had always known to the unusually quiet and distant man he had become. He was now irritable, moody, and often ate meals alone in his room.
From time to time she caught a glimpse of the “old Gio”, like when he would pick his little brother up from school on Fridays to take him out to eat or to go shopping. Giovanni had always been a father figure to his little brother. Friends were also shocked to see that Giovanni was now smoking and drinking. They had never known him to drink before as he always appointed himself to be the designated driver in the past.
After a one-year tour of duty in Iraq, Giovanni had returned home quiet, detached, and drinking. He was avoidant of, and rarely discussed, his experiences from his tour.
There was one time; however, when he was hanging out with his friends, that he seemed to randomly recall a family in Iraq. In the midst of their conversations about girls and jobs, Giovanni began to tell them about a time when he had received orders to open fire upon any car that refused to stop. He calmly and without emotion, explained to them that he “lit the car up” and later discovered there was a family inside, a father, mother and two kids. Nothing more was mentioned.
The following month things came to a sudden and tragic point. Giovanni and his friends were hanging out in their apartment when out of nowhere he became incredibly upset over a friend “liking” his ex-girlfriend’s Facebook status. His friends were confused by such a strong response to what they thought was something so benign and had never seen him look at them the way he did that night. He refused any apologies offered and told them, ‘If I apologized to all the families in Iraq, it still would not make a difference.’
Giovanni left the living room, retrieved the gun he now kept beside his bed, and locked himself in the bathroom. They heard the gun cock and broke down the door in time to take it from him. Giovanni then calmly walked out of the apartment and returned from his car with an AK-47. He held his friends hostage for two-hours and threatened to kill anyone who tried to leave or call for help. It was as if he was back on patrol.
Giovanni eventually sat down in the chair, pointed his assault rifle to his neck and pulled the trigger. His mother’s phone rang around 3:00 am.
On June 10th, 2010 Specialist Giovanni Orozco died instantly with a group of his friends forced to witness: suspected cause – invisible war causalities (PTSD), documented cause – relationship break-up.
According to the Department of Defense, a service member commits suicide once every 36-hours.
Please remember ALL of our fallen soldiers and their families this Memorial Day. And dear Luz, you and Giovanni, his little brother and beautiful sister, and all of his friends and family are certainly remembered by me, even five-years later.
Thank you for sharing your son’s story with us and thank you Specialist Giovanni Orozco and all of the service men and women whose lives were sacrificed on our behalf.