Local veteran reflects on life 20 years after the Iraq war began

Tucson local is among thousands still struggling with what they did and saw during the war 20 years later.
(DC Bureau)
Published: Mar. 25, 2023 at 7:39 AM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (13 News) -One and a half million Americas served in the Iraq War. 20 years later, many of those veterans are still struggling to cope with everything they witnessed and did while in service.

Augustine Fernando Lopez Jr., a former sergeant in the Army, is among that number.

“You’re a soldier. You’re not supposed to show those emotions, and you’re not supposed to show weakness. You’re supposed to be tough, and it took me a while to adjust to finally breaking that, from being a soldier to being a civilian again,” said Augustine Fernando Lopez Jr., an Iraq veteran. “That was the hardest transition for me, because I didn’t want to talk about what I went through.”

Lopez first started as an Army reservist in 1995, and when his eight years were up, the war had just started. At that point, he said he had a choice to make, retire or go active duty. He chose to leave behind his pregnant wife and family to serve his country.

But it was not until after his first tour in 2004 that he started to experience PTSD for the first time.

“That’s when I started experiencing my PTSD symptoms, which I hid for the whole tour in Iraq, because I didn’t want to show that there was a problem with me,” said Lopez. “Then also being a sergeant in a leadership role. I didn’t want to show my soldiers that I was not going to go with them if they were diagnosing me with something.”

Lopez said that during his second tour in 2008, he did his best to keep what he was experiencing bottled up.

“With me it was anxiety that started first. So, it was hard for me, like what’s going on with me, I’ll be shaking and all that. I had to walk away,” said Lopez.

After being honorably discharged in 2010 due to an injury, coping did not become any easier.

At the time, PTSD was still a new concept for the Department of Veteran Affairs. This made it difficult for him to find proper treatment. He says that’s when he turned to other ways to sleep and forget.

“Coming back in 08, that’s when I fully felt the PTSD because that’s when my nightmare started. Nightmares, flashbacks, and heavy drinking, I started drinking really heavy. Since the day I came back, I was drinking like two or three bottles of vodka a day, and that lasted to about 2012.”

Trying to find ways to cope led to him getting cirrhosis of the liver and checking himself into rehab at the VA multiple times. Lopez said the decision to finally get help came as he saw himself in the other soldiers that were struggling.

But, despite the help, 20 years later he still struggles to cope with what he did and saw.

“When I first went in 04, I had my first shock, it was actually my first trip convoy out of the wire, which you’re going out to the danger zone. That was one of my first shooting incidents that I had with the vehicle. It’s one of those that haunts me still today, because I remember the faces and the people that I saw, and then where I shot, and it’s always been there.”

Lopez said this is something that will always be with him, but with the support of his family, friends, and new passion for photography, he has better learned to cope.

“I think that’s always going to be with me. The only difference is that I now know the tools to cope with these, especially with anxiety, Panic and isolation is one thing that I do struggle with, but every day I try something different or new to cope with that,” said Lopez.

But, despite all the hurdles he has had to face, he said he wouldn’t change a thing.

“I went out there to fight and to help people of Iraq, but looking back at everything that I have done, I would not change anything. You know, what we did out there is something that I’m gonna hold on to and the brotherhood that I built, I’m gonna hold on to that.”

For veterans struggling with PTSD or any other mental health issues, the VA offers numerous support services. You can find a location and more information on these programs here.