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Father and Son Suffer Post-Iraq War Brain Injuries

Both survived an IED blast, three years apart, and struggle with aftermath

MOORPARK, Calif. — The crisply ironed uniforms of the father and son hang side by side in what they have dubbed the “Marine Corps closet,” a dark space filled with vestiges of their tours of duty.

Two Purple Hearts. A backpack full of medical records.

The father is David R. Franco; the son is David W. Aside from the name, they share so much: proud service in Iraq, and a haunting, painful aftermath.

Both survived blasts by improvised explosive devices, and both have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. They fight pain daily. They are jittery in crowds at the mall. They have memory lapses. The father has struggled to spell “the” or “to,” while his son searches for words in a conversation.

David W. Franco

David W. Franco, center, watches a Veterans Day celebration with his father and mother Adriana in Moorpark, Calif (Image:Chris Carlson)

Their injuries came three years apart. The elder Franco was still struggling to come to grips with his own suffering when he learned that his son had been injured in the same way.

“My heart dropped,” said the father. “As a parent you want your kids to be safe. You don’t want them to go through the same things you’ve been through.”

A premonition proves prescient
The military was in the elder Franco’s blood — his father, uncles and other relatives joined different branches — and he was a career man in the Marine Corps. He thrived as a leatherneck.

Franco went to Iraq at age 43, hand-picked by Gen. James Amos, now the top leader of the Marine Corps.

Franco was the only enlisted man on the Amos-selected team, a so-called Red Cell group that studied enemy tactics and made threat assessments to U.S. bases. The concept was so successful, Amos is considering using Red Cell groups in Afghanistan and the Marine Corps plans to start teaching the strategy at its professional military schools this year.

The general’s spokesman called Franco’s leadership and perspective “invaluable.”

He was on his team’s second deployment to Iraq when he felt a premonition the morning of Nov. 4, 2005 that something was going to go wrong. He prayed and then called his wife, Adriana. Like always, he refrained from saying goodbye. Instead he told her, “I’ll talk to you when I talk to you.”

Franco turned on “Los Lonely Boys,” a Tex-Mex rock band, to calm his mind and then he and the other Marines headed out in a Humvee from Fallujah. As they drove underneath a bridge, Franco saw a tire covered with a burlap sack along the road and instantaneously thought it was a bomb.

Then he was unconscious. When he came to, blood was streaming from his ears. Nearby, his colonel was slumped over; Franco grabbed him and checked his pulse. The colonel slowly opened his eyes and gestured that he was OK. Franco couldn’t hear and was dazed, but he refused help for nine hours while he aided the other wounded Marines. All survived.

When he returned home a month later, Franco says he knew something was wrong. He had lower back, neck and leg pains. His left eye kept fluttering. He had headaches, felt nauseous and would sometimes forget where he was going while driving.

Five months after the accident, he was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury. He scoured the Internet to learn everything he could.

‘Make sure he comes home’
All the while, he worried about his son in Iraq.

The path of “Junior” to the Marines was far different. For a long time, he resisted his family’s military tradition.

As a teenager, Junior ripped up Marine Corps posters in his bedroom when he became angry; and Franco said he never pushed him to join. But then came the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and the younger Franco signed up immediately; joining the Marines, he felt, was the best way to set the world aright.

When Junior, who resembles his father, showed him the black recruiting book of the Marine Corps, the barrel-chested man with Marine tattoos, was torn with feelings of pride and worry.

As the military plane carrying his son to Iraq took off from March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County, the decorated combat veteran stood on a nearby road and sobbed.

“I remember telling the gunnery sergeant, watch my boy, make sure he comes home,” he said.

The father got the call on the way home from a doctor’s appointment.

“Don’t tell me you got hit by an IED,” Franco said he told his son.

“Yeah, I did,” Junior responded. “They aren’t going to let me go anywhere for a full 30 days.”

It happened on April 24, 2008. Junior was en route to the village of Haditha on the last mission of his seven-month deployment. He had just asked the gunner to keep an eye out for anything suspicious.

“He tapped me on the leg. I said ‘What?’ and that’s when it blew. I came to, at the bottom of my tank. I couldn’t hear. I couldn’t move my leg,” Junior said.

‘I cannot relate to either one of them’
Franco, 50, has retired from the military. He spends his day either getting help for himself or helping his son.

Junior moved back in about seven months ago with his father, his stepmother, Adriana, and his 17-year-old brother, Randy. Junior’s 8-year-old son Caden, from a past relationship, lives with them every other week.

Adriana said she catches glimpses of their pain: Her husband’s eyelids sometimes flutter or his body flinches. He yells in his sleep. She says both Marines have bolted from the house when there is a loud noise outside. They study people at the mall and stare them down, believing they pose a threat to the family.

David W. Franco, center, watches a Veterans Day celebration with his father and mother Adriana in Moorpark, Calif

Traumatic brain injury is a mysterious ailment that can cause mood swings, forgetfulness, paranoia and can strain any family. The mental wound afflicts an estimated 10 percent of troops returning from today’s wars.

In the Franco home, half the members of the household suffer with the injury, but all struggle with it.

“I cannot relate to either one of them,” Adriana concedes. “That’s the hard part, being I’m a wife and a mother.”

As she talks, her husband listens, his face turning to stone. He is sitting across from her in the corner of the living room that suddenly fills with tension. He twiddles his thumbs rapidly.

Adriana pushes on. She said she has stopped asking her husband or son questions when they seem depressed because it only irks them.

“I get frustrated with them. Maybe, if I sit here long enough, they’ll talk, but it’s easier for me. It’s difficult for them,” says Adriana, a bank teller whose frank words are softened by a warm smile. “I learned to try to limit myself … to not pick at things.”

Adriana, 40, wore dog tags to show her solidarity with her Marines when they were deployed and is deeply proud of being in a military family.

She finds solace in the fact that the two Marines have each other.

When one is brooding, the other will sit down, and say nothing. Adriana knows it is a role only they can fill for each other.

Struggling to fit in
Five years after Franco was injured, the sergeant major sees doctors up to three times a week.

“You’re never the same person again. You come here and you don’t fit in. We don’t fit in here. That’s why we would rather be deployed. Nobody understands us,” said Franco, who sometimes rubs his hands as he talks, almost as if he is washing them.

He asks incredulously: “You tell me how you explain to someone that when you were driving down the freeway once you saw bodies lying there? You know what I mean? Or you see a tire on the side of the freeway that freaks you out?”

The men have talked about the bomb blasts but they rarely go into detail about other combat days.

Junior, 28, still suffers from leg, lower back and shoulder pain. He often loses his balance and has dizzy spells. When he showers, he holds on to the wall for support, because when he closes his eyes he sometimes feels like he is falling backward.

He is plagued by headaches. His friends tell him he repeats himself.

“You’ll take a shower, take your clothes off, take a shower again, five, six times. It affects your speed, the way you think, how you want to talk, lots of stuff doesn’t come out properly,” Junior says.

He feels angry and out of place. There are pressures from the job, family and mounting bills.

“I’m very short tempered,” says Junior, who left active duty in 2009 and now works at a credit card company. “Sometimes I can control it but if someone says something stupid, it may be one small thing, I get quiet and just leave.”

He would prefer to be deployed and confront an external enemy rather than his internal agitation, which is intensified by the quietness of everyday life in Moorpark, an orderly suburban city of landscaped lawns and strip malls.

“It’s scary over there, but you don’t have to deal with things like here,” he said. “You’re just chillin’ with your boys, hanging out.”

The hardest part is dealing with ignorant people, he says. Some have asked him how many people he killed or how he feels about Washington’s policies.

“There’s really nothing you can say to people, unless they’ve been on tours, see what the guys go through everyday,” says Junior, whose muscular arms display the tattoo “USMC.”

He runs or works the anger off at the gym.

He misses the battlefield, where missions are cut and dried, and life has a larger meaning.

His father understands that yearning.

The day he flew home on a C-130 over the site of the World Trade Center, he got a perfect view of ground zero.

“I looked down there and I realized it was worth every minute of being in Iraq,” he said. “It just made you want to go back.”

Franco had a U.S. flag raised for nine minutes and 11 seconds in his son’s honor at Al-Asad Air Base in Iraq. He had the neatly folded flag framed along side a photo of Junior in combat fatigues and gave it to him for Christmas in 2009.

“We’re father and son but we’re more than that,” Franco says. “We’re like brothers.”

David Franco and his son, "Junior," share a beer in Moorpark, Calif. "We're father and son but we're more than that," says the elder Franco. (Chris Carlson)

Junior, who’s now in the reserves, recently asked his father to put on his pin at his ceremony promoting him to staff sergeant. He has picked his dad for the honor every time he has risen in rank.

“He didn’t have a choice,” Junior quipped, smirking. “I had to show him that I actually am getting promoted faster than he did in the Marine Corps.”

Then he quietly admits: “I always like it. He’s a big thing, big part of it.”

On a recent night, the family made their weekly outing for “Taco Tuesday” at their favorite hangout, The Dugout. Here the Franco men are more at ease; the elder Franco slips into the kitchen to make tacos and salsa for his family. Junior says his dad makes a mean salsa, and his own specialty is guacamole.

While Franco cooked, Junior sat at the end of the table and joked with his sister Amanda, 25, who is pregnant with her first child. He recounted his own reaction when he learned that he was having a son.

“Yes!” he exclaimed.

Junior says his own son wants to become a Marine and that he will support him.

On good days like this one, the pain subsides — and the bonds of brotherhood, of shared sacrifice, resonate.

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