Disfigured Marine veteran faces disrespect at home
Six years have passed since a roadside bomb set Ronny “Tony” Porta on fire in Iraq when he was 20, and he’s still trying to find his way home. Each reflection in the mirror bears witness to why that is not easy.
Every stranger who points or stares, every teenager who mocks with the word “monster” or couple that whisper behind his back that the disfigurement is the price for invading a country, tells Porta he hasn’t quite left the battlefield behind.
“This is home for me,” says Porta, 26, who grew up here in suburban Washington, D.C., after his family emigrated from Peru. “But sometimes, it’s kind of hard saying, ‘I am home.’”
Two months ago, a man approached Porta in a Home Depot. He stood studying the burns on Porta’s face and asked if a car accident was to blame. Porta, wearing a Marine Corps sweatshirt, said, no, it was an IED explosion in Iraq.
What really stuck with Porta and angers him still were the words the man said next: “Was it worth it?” Is it so difficult, Porta asks, to see that those who volunteer in defense of the nation know it can carry a price? “Freedom is not free,” he says, echoing an age-old American refrain.
There has been a seismic shift in how Americans see Iraq and Afghanistan veterans compared with the bitterness that greeted those returning from Vietnam. Yellow-ribbon car magnets and handshakes in airport concourses today are a far cry from the anti-war demonstrators who sneered at uniformed Americans decades ago.
Recent wars have left more than 1,100 major burn victims and 1,700 amputees among the nearly 50,000 combat casualties, and about 400,000 troops or veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, mild traumatic brain injury or both.
They arrive in an America more supportive than in the past, but also more mystified about who they are. The scorched or dismembered or the emotionally distressed are even more alien, pollsters say. Asked whether they comprehend the problems troops or veterans face, 70 percent of the public conceded to Pew researchers in 2011: “not too well [or] not well at all.”