Trying to find a house for Specialist Roberto Reyes
By Suhrith Parthasarathy
It was 5 p.m. on a Friday in early September and Maria Mendez-Valentin, as she does unfailingly every day, rushed from work to reach the Nursing Home at the James J. Peters V.A. Medical Center in the Bronx. Her nephew, US Army Specialist, Roberto Reyes Jr., 30, has been there for 6 years.
His room is on the second floor of the small red brick building. She walked in and asked him how he was feeling. A nod was all she got. She rubbed his feet, gently, in the hope of eliciting more response. Reyes made a strained, humming, sound. “He doesn’t like people touching his feet,” Mendez, 48, said.
Reyes, lying on a raised bed, had his head titled towards the right. The television was on, but the volume was down. High sounds affect his orientation. His entire left side is paralyzed and he has no peripheral vision. You need to stand right in front of him for him to see you. Mendez said, “There are some days when he speaks a lot and some on which he doesn’t speak at all.”
On January 26, 2005, Reyes was returning to his barracks in Baghdad when the Humvee that he was driving ran over an Improvised Explosive Device. Mendez, dressed in a white t-shirt and black jeans, now sitting in the second floor lobby, recounted the event as it was described to her: “It threw Robert fourteen feet high into the air, and as he landed on the floor, a huge piece of shrapnel embedded itself into his head.”
“I still remember the day I got the call, clearly,” said Mendez. “The moment the sergeant on the line said ‘regrettably,’ I dropped the phone. It was only after my husband spoke to him and told me that Robert was alive that I found the courage to take the call.”
Mendez then called her sister, Reyes’s mother, Aida Rivera. She asked if she could come over for a bit. When Rivera saw a bunch of family members gathered at her place, she knew something was wrong. “She locked herself in her room and it took a lot to convince her to come out,” Mendez added.
Reyes was treated for a week in Iraq before being transferred to the Army’s Regional Medical Center in Landstuhl, Germany. For much of that time, his family had little idea of his condition.
Rivera, 50, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, and wearing a baseball cap, which read “proud mom of a US Army solider,” joined Mendez in the VA Center lobby, said, “It was a devastating week. We didn’t know what was happening.”
Mendez added, “We got a call saying that he was in critical condition and that they were unsure whether he’d survive.”
Reyes was then transferred to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, MD. Mendez and Rivera visited him there. “He was unrecognizable. He had tubes coming out of everywhere; he was dirty; his head was swollen. A doctor said he wouldn’t survive beyond the night. At this point, my sister fainted,” said Mendez.
The doctors removed a quarter of Reyes’s brain. Mendez said, “There is no muscle in the back of his head. A part of his brain has been replaced by a resin cap, which is why his head is titled to the right.”
Rivera was in the room when Reyes woke up from his coma. She said, “It was at the VA Medical Center in Richmond. I heard a hum and when I turned towards Robert, he still had his eyes shut. He opened them slightly and said, ‘Mom!’ I was jumping as though I had won the lottery.”
Since then, Reyes’s health has been unsteady. He suffered a stroke and fell back into a coma. But he recovered and once his condition stabilized, he was moved to this nursing home. “He has been discharged since 2007. The only reason why he is still here is because we don’t have a suitable home to take him to,” added Mendez.
In 2009, Mendez thought she had found him a “perfect home” at Sampson Avenue, near her place, in the Bronx, where he had lived since he was 14. But a petition filed in the New York State Supreme Court by the Veterans Administration Regional Office scuttled the plans. Veterans Advocate, Larry Rivera, who has been working with the family to help find Reyes a home, said in a phone conversation, “They objected that we didn’t have the right guardianship requirements. Maria is Robert’s financial and legal guardian. She has saved money for him in a trust fund since he was 16. For some reason, they felt the money couldn’t be utilized to buy the house. I find it inexplicable.” Attempts to reach the VA Regional Center by phone were unsuccessful.
Mendez said, “It was a devastating blow. He was born here; he was raised here; why leave here?”
Larry Rivera added, “To withdraw from the trust-fund, the permission of the New York State Supreme Court is required. Now we may have little option, but to move outside the state.”
Mendez has a house in Pennsylvania, to which she wants to move Reyes. She has donated a part of the house to him so that no further legal complications accrue. She said, “It’s not going to be easy to leave New York. But if that is what it takes to find Robert a home, that’s what we’ll do.”
There is no ill feeling, though, towards the military in the Reyes family. “My youngest sister’s son has joined the army,” Mendez said, “My own son is joining the air force. They all tell me, If Robert did it we are going to do it too.’” Aida Rivera said, “In the beginning, I was angry and hurt. I blamed everyone from the President to the military. Now, I am very proud. I am happy he’s home. It’s better than going to a cemetery and putting flowers. And he’s all mine – momma’s little baby boy.”
Reyes had just enrolled for a third term in Iraq when his Hummer exploded. “We didn’t know it at the time. We thought he was coming home for good. He was set to return in a few days when it happened,” said Aida Rivera. Mendez added, “He has always been a brave boy. He had learning difficulties as a child. But he joined the army to prove that he could serve.”
Reyes was living with his aunt when he decided to join the army. “He had always had a strained relationship with his father, who had separated from his mother even before he was born,” Mendez said. “When Reyes said he wanted to go to wrestling school, his father objected. A few days later he told me that he wanted to join the army. This was right after 9/11. He said he wanted to prove not only to his dad, but also to himself that he could be someone in this world.”
During his time in Iraq, Reyes exchanged many letters with Mendez and Rivera. “He said he missed us, but that he also felt he was doing good there. He knew the reason why he was there. He talked about the people, how poor they were in Baghdad. How him being there made a difference,” Mendez said, to which Rivera added, “He would go out even during off-days, so that he can give candies to kids and give them a ride.”
Reyes’s injury has had a terrible spillover effect. Mendez said, “His injury has changed the dynamics of the family. Aida has had a 360-degree change. She was a woman who worked, who socialized. She had a routine. Now she’s lost her apartment and her identity. Yes she’s Aida, but she’s Robert. You can’t think of Robert without thinking of her, and you cant think of her without thinking of Robert. Whatever pain he’s going through, she suffers.”
Mendez has had to hold things together for the family. Larry Rivera said, “Maria is the most unique human being I’ve ever met. She has dedicated her entire life to finding Robert a home.”
Mendez added, “I know I can’t lose my faith. It’s been an agonizing, heart-breaking time. But because Robert is still fighting, I am going to fight and I am going to get him home. It doesn’t matter how long it takes.”