Yarvis held his arms at his sides, Army straight, his thumbs aligned with the yellow stripe on his dress pants. In the crook of the fingers of his left hand, he cradled the stone.
Just past 2 a.m. on a warm October night in Afghanistan, an Army psychologist picked up the new social worker from the airport in Kabul.
After all the flight delays, she was surprised at David Cabrera’s enthusiasm. During the walk from the airport to another part of the base, he quizzed her on her interests and her family, and shared his own. As much as he talked, she said, he listened.
“I think he could have seen a patient right then,” said Army psychologist Capt. Melissa Boyd.
Though space was tight, they managed to find a makeshift tent and bed for him on the base. Soon, however, Cabrera saw a small group of soldiers he had been stranded with earlier while waiting for a flight. They had no place to sleep.
He walked up to the soldiers and told them to put their stuff inside his tent, on his cot.
He then walked outside to sleep with them on the concrete.
“They weren’t a team,” Boyd said. “But he thought it was important to see them through the night together.”
By then, Cabrera had spent years studying PTSD and publishing papers in scholarly journals. He thought every social worker should be deployed at some point. He had witnessed the immediate bond formed when a soldier sees a therapist wearing a combat patch.
The military is developing programs to teach civilian mental health experts to understand the deployment experience. Still, as Cabrera knew, there’s often a vast difference between understanding and experience.
If Cabrera seemed built to soak up other people’s problems, perhaps it was because he spent the first part of his life absorbing plenty of his own.
He rarely talked about his childhood in Florida growing up in a broken home with a different last name. His parents divorced when he was young, and he was bounced among relatives’ homes.
When he was 11, the boy moved to Houston to live with his mother, but she had no place for him. She asked a friend, Robert Cabrera, if he could take David for a while. Cabrera was known in the neighborhood for “taking in strays” — providing a home for wayward children — and the kid they called “Shorty” definitely qualified.
David got into his share of trouble and fights in school, but later learned to disarm opponents with humor as life continued to throw him obstacles. His face was pitted with scars from severe childhood acne that his family initially couldn’t afford to treat. Later in life, he took thousands of pictures, but hated being in them.
By the time he headed for college, he adopted the last name of the first man to offer him a place that felt like home.