Leonardo Contreras turned to his younger sister and said, “If something ever happens to me, don’t ever cry.”
It caught Esperanza Gutierrez off guard, she said. The two were on their way to watch a movie while he was home from Iraq.
“Why?” she asked him. “Because I love you. Of course, I would cry.”
The conversation ended there.
U.S. Marine Cpl. Contreras, a 2003 graduate of South High, died two weeks ago after surviving two tours in Iraq.
He took his own life after suffering, it appears, from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Maybe that’s what he was talking about,” 13-year-old Esperanza said Tuesday when her brother was laid to rest in a military ceremony at Riverside National Cemetery.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, post-traumatic stress disorder is a crippling state of anxiety that affects nearly 8 million American adults who have suffered through — or even just witnessed — a terrifying event.
An estimated 12 percent to 20 percent of the nation’s Iraq war veterans are affected by PTSD, according to the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.
The U.S. military screens and evaluates every service member for PTSD before, during and after they’re deployed, said Capt. Carl B. Redding, with U.S. Marine Corps headquarters.
But after a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine is released from the service, it’s up to each veteran to seek help for PTSD.
On Monday, friends and family gathered for Leo’s open-casket viewing. His face was expressionless. The gleeful, sometimes conniving smirk that friends were used to wasn’t there.
“It wasn’t Leo,” said his friend Cpl. Cody Stapp, 22. “He always smiled.”
Whether it was taking care of his 11-month-old daughter Josalin, or causing mischief with fellow service members, Leo seemed always to be smiling, Stapp said.
He especially smiled around Josalin.
“She was his pride and joy,” said Leonardo’s wife, Esther Contreras, another South High grad. “He loved that little girl from the moment he saw her.”
Born in Mexico, Leo came to the United States with his mother, Maria Gutierrez, when he was 4 years old. He always wanted to be in either law enforcement or the military, family said.
Leo chose the Marines, like his stepfather did.
Contreras was sent to boot camp just days after graduating from South High. He wound up in Pensacola, Fla., where he met up with a high school acquaintance and his future wife, Esther, who was in the Navy.
In February 2006, he was sent to Iraq. And what he witnessed there before his return in September 2006 shook him, Esther said.
During the 11 months Contreras spent at home before the Marines called him back to Iraq, Esther learned what had happened to him during his first tour.
‘HE HAD TO USE HIS WEAPON’
Contreras worked as a mechanic at Al Asad Airfield in western Iraq.
Being in battle wasn’t supposed to be part of his job, but on one occasion he and some fellow Marines left the base and ended up in the middle of a gunfight.
“He had to use his weapon,” Esther said. “Five guys were shooting in a crowd of women and children. He knows he shot a woman. He didn’t know if he shot any children.”
Leo told her the story through tears, she said. Needless to say, he was nervous about returning. To make things tougher, Esther was pregnant, and he would miss Josalin’s birth.
But Leo loved the military.
“In his mind, it was the best thing he could do because he was serving his country,” Esther said. “But he didn’t want to go back to what he saw. He didn’t want to shoot his gun again.”
He returned home to San Diego in February this year with several awards, including a good conduct medal. His term with the Marines was complete in June.
AN OMINOUS SIGN
Leo wasn’t the same person when he returned for good, Esther said. He was short-tempered, had mood swings, was depressed at times and had nightmares. Over time, it got worse.
At one point, he had a nervous breakdown during a Disneyland fireworks show, his family said. Light flashing in the air had been a signal for help in Iraq.
The episode was one of the few moments his family and friends noticed something out of the ordinary with Leonardo. Esther said she saw much more than that.
A few weeks before his death, the couple got into an argument. The clash turned physical and Leo hit Esther — something he never did before, she said.
Later, Leonardo told her he “blacked out” and didn’t remember what happened.
It was enough to convince Contreras he needed help, so he checked himself into Naval Medical Center San Diego in early September. Doctors there diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Military officials would not discuss Contreras’ case because of confidentiality issues, but the nation’s armed forces have focused more attention on providing care for PTSD, said Terry Jones of the U.S. Department of Defense.
“We’re doing everything we can think of to reach out to people,” Jones said. “But these situations do happen. They’re so unfortunate.”
Not everyone agrees that the military is doing all it can.
Veterans and their families in San Francisco filed an unprecedented national class action lawsuit in July alleging “shameful failures” by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for those who returned from Iraq and Afghanistan and are now suffering from PTSD.
The best thing to do is to get professional help as soon as possible, Jones said.
“Nobody’s denying how hard this war has been on people,” he said. “It’s a terrible stress and strain.”
Brian Shumylo, a friend of Leo and fellow serviceman, knows about PTSD because he, too, was diagnosed with it. The 29-year-old went to Iraq three times where he said he was bombed and shot at. Afterward, he had mood swings, nightmares and was easy to snap. He even developed a twitch.
Shumylo said he had no idea Leo was also suffering.
“If Leo had it, he did a really good job of hiding it,” he said.
After being released from the hospital, San Diego police arrested Leo for hitting Esther. While in jail, he was under suicide watch, Esther said.
He was released three days later, on Sept. 11. Esther moved out of their apartment and authorities advised Leo to stay away from his wife and daughter until their situation was straightened out.
Esther said Leonardo became depressed and no one heard from him in the days before his death.
In his home sometime on Sept. 16, Leonardo killed himself.
A Marine took the flag from Leo’s coffin, folded it into a perfect triangle and placed it on Maria’s lap.
She sobbed, while Esperanza cried quietly next to her, twiddling her fingers.
His death was sudden, the pastor said during Leo’s military funeral. It’s important for family to not feel responsible, he said.
Esther sobbed as well, holding Josalin, who wore a blue Marine uniform for toddlers.
Esperanza said she tried to hold back the tears, remembering what her brother had told her.
“I cried a little,” the 13-year-old said. “I have to be strong for my mom.”
After the ceremony, Maria walked to Leo’s silver coffin and hugged it.
“I love you mi hijo (my son),” she said while sobbing. “I love you. I love you. I love you. I’ll never forget you.”
LIFE AFTER DEATH
Nearly two weeks after his death, Maria is still trying to figure out what went wrong.
She said Leo, her only son, hated for her to worry and never told her anything was wrong.
“It just doesn’t add up,” Maria said Thursday. “He always told me he was OK.”
Esther is now looking to join a support group for widows of service members, and searching for ways to survive financially.
Because her husband committed suicide, she may only get half of his life insurance — if she gets any at all. Leo’s mother is listed as a beneficiary.
Josalin will get Social Security benefits until she’s 18 years old.
She is also trying to get a hold of a lawyer. She says the military did not do much to help Leonardo when he needed it.
“Is it worth fighting?” Esther asked. “In my eyes it is because it is my husband.”