A Father Transformed by Anguish: Scars Define the Man Who Burned Himself After Son’s Death in Iraq

January 16, 2005

BOSTON -- Another day of trying to recover.

Once again, Carlos Arredondo, whose reaction to the death of his son became one of the iconic images of the Iraq war, is reading the last e-mail he received from him. “I’m in najaf,” the e-mail from Marine Lance Cpl. Alexander Scott Arredondo begins, and those three words are enough to make a 44-year-old father once again feel as though he is on fire.

Every bit of Arredondo’s skin is coated with antibiotic cream. His left palm has glass in it from when three Marines informed him that Alex was dead and he began smashing the windows of their van. His lower legs, which received the worst of the burns from when he splashed gasoline in the van and ignited it, are stained the color of cranberries. His hair, cut off in the hospital, is only now starting to grow back. His fingernails, ruined when he used his hands to claw holes in Alex’s grave for flowers, are all gone.

“Do me a favor and check the news online. save pictures articles and videos if you can. i’ll stay in contact until i move. let everyone know i love them,” the e-mail from Alex goes on, and Arredondo continues to read it, oblivious to everything else, including his wife, Melida, who is in another room urgently typing a letter.

“Our family is in need,” she writes on her computer.


The worst of Arredondo's injuries were on his legs, to which he applies antibiotic cream.  (David Finkel/TWP)

“Medical costs are now over $50,000.”

“We are inviting you to a very special” event, she continues, a fundraiser, and keeps writing until the phone rings and Arredondo comes in to see who’s calling.

Maybe it’s the psychologist. Maybe it’s the grief counselor. Maybe it’s the marriage counselor. Maybe it’s his mother, who had a breakdown after pulling off his burning socks when he was on fire. Maybe it’s Victoria, his first wife and Alex’s mother, who called him a bastard when she heard what he had done. Maybe it’s his son Brian, who is so confused by what Arredondo did that he has stopped all contact with his father.

“Hello,” Melida says into the phone, and when Arredondo realizes it’s not anyone he knows, he returns to a room where the walls are covered with photocopies of Alex’s portrait, the windowsill is covered with the medications he needs to get through a day, and the bed is covered with copies of Alex’s letters, including the first one he sent as he headed overseas.

“I am not afraid of dying,” it says. “I am more afraid of what will happen to all the ones that I love if something happens to me.”

“Oh, Alex. Oh, my goodness,” Arredondo says as he picks that one up to read.

Defying Explanation

Even now, so many months later, no longer unconscious in a hospital burn unit, no longer restrained to his hospital bed as a precaution against suicide, no longer gasping as his skin is pulled off with tweezers, no longer encased in bandages, forgiven by the Marines, Arredondo says he does not know why he did what he did.

Was he trying to kill himself? Maybe, he says. Was he trying to bring attention to his son’s death, the 968th of the war? Maybe it was that. Was it an act of protest against a war he doesn’t like? Maybe. Was it out of anguish, or perhaps guilt, over being a less-than-perfect father? Maybe. Was it, as Melida says one afternoon when Arredondo has gone to Alex’s grave, “poor impulse control”? Maybe it was that, too, he says when he returns, hands dirty, eyes shiny, retreating again to the room of portraits and e-mails.

He says he understands the meaning of grief now; less clear to him is the meaning of recovery.

“How am I going to feel better?” he says. “I have no idea.”

It is a question not only for Arredondo, but for all of the survivors of the 1,300 U.S. troops killed so far in the Iraq war, the relatives who in those first moments scream and weep and slam the door and collapse. “The beginning of the war” is how Maj. Scott Mack, whose platoon members delivered the news to Arredondo, describes it.

And then come all the moments after, when “emotions become behaviors,” says Tom Hannon, who counsels veterans and their families in Boston. The “profoundly depressed” mother of a Vietnam War veteran who has visited her son’s grave every day for more than 30 years. The father of a Vietnam veteran who insisted that the name of his dead son never be mentioned again. “What’s your responsibility?” Hannon says he asks parents. “Is it to flounder and fail, or is it conduct yourself in a way that honors your boy or girl? It’s the difference between being a victim and a healthy survivor.”

“Here are five criteria for recovery,” says Robert Weiss, a senior fellow at the University of Massachusetts’s Gerontology Institute in Boston and an expert on bereavement. “You regain internal comfort, which means you are not assailed by painful thoughts. Second, you regain the ability to experience gratification. Third, you have energy for daily life. Fourth, you find your social roles have meaning; you’re not just going through the motions. And fifth, you can treat the future as if it has meaning. You can plan. You may even hope.”

That’s what recovery is, Weiss says, a person’s return to his previous level of functioning, but reaching such a point takes “longer than anybody thinks” and only increases in difficulty when recovery is from the death of a child. “If you ask people who have had kids who died, they’ll tell you that you don’t get over it, you get used to it,” he says. “There is a kind of persistent ache. There is a sense of having failed the kid somehow. There’s just a complicated set of feelings of helplessness, self-blame and sometimes rage.”

Where, then, is Arredondo in this, whose son is dead, whose other son won’t talk to him, whose ex-wife is furious at him, whose wife is begging for money for him, and who spends most of his day in a room he has converted into a shrine? How far has he come? How far does he have to go?

“I really love my son,” he says, at the cemetery one day, stamping his foot three times on Alex’s grave.

He visits the grave every other day. He has decorated it with roses, carnations, Alex’s pictures, Alex’s letters, a temporary headstone that he made from two discarded pieces of wood and 13 American flags.

“If he were to come right now, he would kiss me on the mouth, he would kiss me on the cheeks, he would kiss me on the mouth again,” Arredondo says. “That’s how we said hello.”

He stamps his foot again, hard enough for the ground to vibrate.

“Hello,” he calls.

The Day His Life Changed

He was, until Aug. 25 of last year, a healthy, normal man. He worked. He played soccer. He loved, rather than obsessed.

Alex was his firstborn, and the photos that Arredondo is constantly looking at show how close they were, at least in the first years of Alex’s life. There they are at home, asleep next to each other, in a part of Boston called Jamaica Plain. There they are at Boston’s swan boats. There they are in New York, on a playground near the World Trade Center. There they are in Costa Rica, visiting where Carlos was born.

He sneaked into the United States when he was 19. He married Victoria in 1983. In 1984 they had Alex, in 1987 they had Brian, and then came a divorce punctuated by accusations and a long-running custody battle, which still defines their relationship, even as they grieve. During Alex’s teenage years, Arredondo was living in Florida with Melida, prohibited by court order from direct contact. He returned to Boston in 2000, resumed contact with his sons, moved back to Florida early last year to start a construction business, and, on Aug. 25, his birthday, just after lunch, was in the front yard of the house he and Melida bought, waiting for Alex to call, when here came the Marine van.

“We’re looking for the family of Alexander Arredondo,” he remembers one of the Marines saying. “I am the family,” he said, and then “it was like my heart went all the way to the ground.”

From the time of notification to the time of the fire took, he imagines, 20 minutes. He remembers running into the back yard, sitting in the grass, phoning Melida, phoning Brian, standing up, sitting back down and standing up again. He remembers going into the front yard and asking the Marines to leave. He remembers picking up a hammer. He remembers picking up a gasoline can and a propane torch. He remembers a Marine saying, “Sir, don’t do that,” and then he was in the van, first smashing windows, then splashing gasoline, and then igniting the torch, perhaps accidentally, perhaps intentionally, perhaps suicidally, perhaps, perhaps. “I just feel this explosion,” he says, describing what happened next. “It threw me out of the van, and immediately I feel the flames all over me. I feel the sensation of burning. The sensation I was on fire.

“I remember that they grabbed me and held me down while I was screaming, and my mother was trying to take off my shirt, and I keep telling my mother, ‘My feet are burning.’

“I remember somebody else grabbing me by the back of my pants and picking me up, and they were dragging me, my feet were dragging, and then the person was on top of me, and he was holding me down on the ground.

“I remember suddenly Melida was there, and she said, ‘Carlos, can you see?’ And I kept saying, ‘Oh, Alex,’ and Melida, she said, ‘Don’t fight it, don’t fight it anymore, don’t fight it, don’t fight it.’

“And then, when I started getting a little more tranquil, because Melida was there, I think I passed out.”

The bill for the hospital with the burn unit was $43,710.46. The bill for the ambulance was $487.50. The bill for an initial psychological evaluation was $250. The bill for another hospital, whose emergency room he was taken to initially, was $9,952, the latest reminder of which has shown up in the day’s mail. Melida, a nursing home administrator who has been out of work since Aug. 25, puts it in a stack of letters, including one from a hospital informing them that a lien has been placed on their house.

“Carlos,” she says, “are we going to see Alex?”

“Yes,” he says.

In the bedroom, he coats himself with antibiotic cream and sunblock, and grabs a handful of Alex’s letters to pass out to whomever he sees. In the living room, Melida says, not joking, exhausted, “I need to know -- is this normal behavior?”

They get in the car and drive past the church that donated furniture and rent money to them when they came back to Boston for the funeral and then decided to stay on for a while to be closer to Brian, who is living with Victoria in Bangor, Maine.

They turn onto the road they were driving along the day that Arredondo’s mother, in the back seat, soon after the funeral, suddenly began kicking and screaming, and broke down in front of their eyes.

“I’ve never seen my mother like that,” Arredondo says.

They drive past the funeral home where Alex’s wake was held, go past the restaurant where the fundraiser will take place and follow the same zigzagging route to the cemetery they followed on the day of the funeral.

“He was so naive, you know?” Arredondo says. He looks at one of the photos he has brought with him, a close-up of a young man who lived until he was 20 years and 20 days old, who had a girlfriend named Sheila, who liked to sing, who enlisted 25 days before 9/11 and was one of the first Marines into Baghdad. “He was a nice person,” Arredondo says, reducing 20 years and 20 days to a sorrowful compliment, and describes the last time he saw him, in his casket. “They allowed me off the stretcher and I saw the back of his head. He had a big opening,” he says, and how many times since has he wondered about the exact cause of that?

Later, back home, while Melida works on arrangements for the fundraiser, Arredondo receives a call from a friend of Alex who mentions that he recently spoke with Brian.

“You talked to him?” Arredondo says. “I haven’t heard from him. In a month. He was quiet? He was taking it hard? Why do you say that? He sounded very sad?”

Next, he writes a letter.

“Brian, please call me,” he writes. “Come to visit. Please. I miss you. I love you very much. Call me. Your dad, Carlos L. Arredondo.”

Next he calls Victoria.

“This is Carlos,” he says. “I would like to talk to you, please. And I need to talk to Brian, please. I would like to talk to all of you, please.”

He hangs up. “They didn’t pick up,” he says. His hands are shaking. The doctors have told him to take deep breaths when this happens. He takes deep breaths. “What am I supposed to do?” he says. “I’ve already lost one son. Now I will lose another?”

A Mother’s 20 Minutes

“So how’s it going?” Victoria remembers Alex saying when he telephoned her from Najaf, 15 hours before he died. “I laughed and said, ‘Okay,’ and then I said, ‘So how are you doing, honey? Are you eating?’ “ And soon after that, a Marine van was pulling up in front of her house.

A little yellow house on a busy road in Bangor -- that’s where Victoria Foley is living now to be away from her ex-husband and Boston, and that’s where the van arrived about the same time another van was arriving at Arredondo’s house in Florida. The Marines had timed it perfectly except for one thing: Only Brian, 17, was home. The Marines wouldn’t tell him why they were there, but of course he knew, and then his father was on the phone saying, “Brian, the Marines are here,” and then Victoria was in the front yard and Brian was saying to her, “I’m sorry, Mom, I’m sorry, Mom,” and now her recovery is underway, too.

A mother’s recovery: “Ah geez,” she keeps saying. She has a quiet, sad voice, sad eyes, sad posture, sad everything, and knows it, which doesn’t change a thing. “I have days when I feel someone has put a thousand weights on me,” she says. “I have days when I don’t even want to think because it takes too much effort. I call them Alex days.”

Her ex-husband has his wounds; she has hers. Her ex-husband has his images of Alex; she has hers:

Alex is 6, and Carlos is gone, and she, Alex and Brian spend night after night sleeping with one another on the couch.

Alex is 10 and has an announcement. “Mom, I’m no longer a little boy,” he says. “And his teeth were still little,” is what Victoria remembers about that.

Alex is 17 and is asking Victoria to sign his enlistment papers so he can join the Marines. “This is what he wanted,” she says. “Why would I not allow it when it’s such a good and noble thing?”

Alex is 19 and about to leave for his second tour in Iraq and is trying to explain to her what to do if he dies, “and I said, ‘I can’t. I can’t do that,’ and I went to the sink and did the dishes.”

Alex is 20 years and 20 days old, and Carlos is on the phone telling her that if she hadn’t signed the papers, Alex would still be alive.

She sits in the chair where she sat when the Marines told her that Alex was dead, in the chair she sometimes just sits in, looking around. There’s Alex’s picture. “What a handsome guy, huh?” she says.

There’s the phone, with an answering machine filled with a father’s messages, all of which Brian listened to. “He said, ‘I know I should call, but . . .’ So I took him off the hook. I said, ‘Your father’s not very healthy right now. Maybe it’s better not to talk to him.’ And he said okay, and you could see him lighten up.”

There’s the TV, the reason for so much of Brian’s confusion.

“Turn on the TV!” Melida said into the cell phone that day, speaking loudly to Brian because of a hovering news helicopter from which pictures were going live across the country.

And so Brian, in Maine, turned on the TV.

“That’s my father!” he said. “That’s my father!”

“He saw his father shaking, on the stretcher,” Victoria says. “He thought he was going to lose both of them that day. I can’t imagine what he was feeling. I don’t even know what I was feeling, except: What are you doing!

“The first thing I said was, ‘Oh, my God.’ And the second thing I said was, ‘You bastard.’ “

Her ex-husband’s reaction -- everyone knows his 20 minutes. He is the man who set himself on fire.

Victoria’s reaction -- no one knows it. This is what it was:

“I stood up. I sat down. I stood up. I sat down. I kept doing that. I probably did that for 10 minutes. For 20 minutes. I have no idea. I don’t know what I was trying to do. I guess I was trying to feel okay.”

Recovery, Maybe

The list for the benefit is up to 500 people, including City Council members and neighborhood friends. There will be a computer with a looping slide show of photos of Alex as a baby, as a boy, as a young man, as a Marine, as a baby. The suggested donation will be $20, to go to a fund for medical bills or toward a scholarship fund named for Alex. The deejay will play subdued music, and there will be 1,000 copies of one of Alex’s letters, which, the night before the benefit, Arredondo is folding into envelopes.

“Nine hundred sixty to go,” he says after he has been at it for a while.

The next morning, he is up at 5:30, and while Melida sleeps, he looks at some of the sympathy cards he has received. One person wrote a message of condolence on a napkin and enclosed $25; another sent $7 that she said she was going to spend at McDonald’s; another sent $1,000. All totaled, the contributions have come to about $8,000, which Arredondo has mixed feelings about accepting, just as he has mixed feelings about the benefit itself. “It doesn’t feel right,” he says.

Eight thousand dollars, however, is not $50,000, and so by sundown he is in a coat and tie and loosely tied sneakers and long pants that sandpaper his skin as he moves among the people who, for whatever reason, have shown up to see the man who set himself on fire.

There are not 1,000 people in attendance, only a hundred or so. They are generous, though, and have donated nearly $5,000 by the time Arredondo thanks them for coming and says to them, “I have people ask me, ‘What happened in Florida?’ I cannot really tell you what happened.”

He also says, “There’s a lot of families out there, they’re thinking their kids are going to be safe, and the truth of the matter is everybody’s at risk.”

There is applause, there are nods, there are some tears; and then it’s over and Arredondo is in the car, going by the funeral home where he stopped in the other night for no reason and ended up praying over the body of a stranger; and then he is home, sleeping separately from Melida because they are afraid that if they are together she will touch his leg; and then it is morning, and the phone is ringing, and he is answering it, and he is momentarily unable to speak.

“Victoria?” he says.

Much later, after he and Victoria have talked for two hours, and he has asked about Brian, and Victoria has said that the day will come when he will call, Arredondo will say that for the first time since Alex’s death he felt something lifting in him. But for now, he talks without anger, without bitterness, with his eyes shut, to the mother of his dead son.

“Do you know I have two pictures of Alex in the casket?” he says at one point. “They’re helping me. To accept what happened.”

“They’re helping?” she says.

“Yes,” he says.

Later:

“How did you handle it?” he asks.

“How did I handle it?” she says.

“Yes,” he says.

“I cried a lot,” she says.

Later:

“I think I was angry at a lot of things,” he says. “I was angry that I don’t have my boy anymore. But I wasn’t saying it was your fault. I understand it was his choice.”

Later:

“I think it’s beautiful where he is,” he says.

“It’s a very nice spot,” she says.

And finally:

“Well, thank you for calling me.”

He puts the phone down. He is sitting at the table with Melida’s computer on it, upon which the slide show of Alex’s photos is playing. Alex in the casket. Alex the Marine. Alex riding a bicycle. Alex asleep in the embrace of his father. Alex on the day he was born.

“How about a trip?” Melida says after a while.

“Yeah,” Arredondo says. “That would be nice.”

At the cemetery, there are several inches of fresh snow. The grave, soft in August, is hard now, and this time when Arredondo stamps his foot -- hello Alex, hello Alex, hello Alex -- the snow flies into the air. Up it goes, onto the reddened skin of his legs, an unexpected explosion of cold, and maybe that’s why the man who set himself on fire is suddenly shivering and wondering: Is this how it feels to feel better?

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