Daniel Chang – Miami Herald

One year of warfare in Iraq made Cesar Pastora an angry, troubled man. A veteran of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, Pastora fed on the exhilaration of his duties: jumping from airplanes, which he did 42 times, and participating in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

He vividly remembers Iraqis toppling a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad that year, and how he came home to Miami in 2005 filled with anxiety and anger, which he quelled with cocaine, Xanax and booze.

“A lot of guys don’t know what to do with that extra energy. It can become destructive,’’ Pastora, 27, told a group of documentarians from the John Lennon Educational Tour Bus, a mobile, multimedia recording studio that came to Miami-Dade to collect stories from veterans of wars past and present.

The bus, which rolled into South Florida on Nov. 4, has been gathering video interviews, letters, photos, poems and other material honoring veterans to create a “documentary collage’’ that will be shown on the website lennonbus.org, said executive director Brian Rothschild.

“This project is designed to honor veterans,’’ Rothschild said. “It’s not about being against the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, but to think about veterans as the human beings that they are and the struggles they endured and that their families endured.’‘

The Lennon Bus, one of several efforts gathering stories from South Florida war veterans, ends its tour Wednesday. It will participate in the Miami Beach Veterans Day Parade, from 9 to 11 a.m., and then be open to the public in Flamingo Park.

The tour bus, painted sky blue and emblazoned with Lennon’s ubiquitous self-portrait caricature, is a provocative venue for conversations about war. Lennon famously opposed war in his music, personal statements and actions.

But the Lennon Bus does not promote an anti-war message, Rothschild said. He calls the bus a “safe place’’ for discussions about war and peace.
Among the dozen or so veterans who recalled their years of service while the bus was parked outside the Miami Veterans Affairs Healthcare System on Nov. 6, some, like Pastora, shared stories of difficulty and eventual triumph. Others, like Morris Zuckerman, a veteran of World War II, remembered their service fondly.

Zuckerman, 100, of Miami-Dade, said he retired from the Air Force in 1963 as a master sergeant, after 22 years of service. His memory is not what it once was, said his son, Dan, who accompanied his father on the bus. But the centenarian recalled his military days with relative ease.

Trained as a radio operator and gunner, Zuckerman said he flew exploratory missions over the Himalayas during World War II, delivered supplies during the Berlin Air Lift, and generally, “I did what they told me.’‘ He returned home as a hero, he said. “I can’t remember anything bad about it,’’ he said. “I was honored. I was treated well."

For Army veteran Ian Vaquero, 30, coming home to Miami from Iraq was more difficult.

“The transition process is very confusing,’’ said Vaquero, who returned in 2004. “So many soldiers are coming back with mental problems, and fatigue. . . . War is tiring.’‘

Vaquero, who was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, said he struggles daily with the nervous energy he first felt in the war and that remains with him still.

“It consumes me,’’ he said, “so much of that anxiety of being in war. It almost depresses me that I have to come home and feel that way.’‘The anxiety has made Vaquero hypervigilant. He lives “a few blocks away’’ from the VA hospital and worries about being robbed, getting hurt, or driving his car into a canal.

“I stay prepared,’’ he said when asked how he copes with the lingering anxiety. “I’ve got supplies in my car in case something happens: light bulbs, bathroom supplies, medicine, something to break the window if the car goes into water.’‘

Vaquero said he joined the Army to learn job skills. He became proficient repairing night-vision goggles, but spent most of his time patrolling areas and escorting officers around Iraq.

He considers his service in Iraq more of a rebuilding mission than a war. Vaquero said he helped build bridges, roads, and power grids. And he was greeted warmly by Iraqis.

“Grown men were begging for tooth brushes and food,’’ he said. “These aren’t people who want to go to war with us. I saw a lot of people who just wanted a life.’‘

He is proud of his service: “We’re doing the right thing over there. I don’t want my war, the Iraq War, to be called a non-purposeful war. I don’t want to be treated like the poor Vietnam guys.’‘

For Pastora, the paratrooper, coming home to Miami in 2005 was also a struggle. Diagnosed with PTSD, he said he drifted from one job to another, typically at call centers or as an entry-level accountant. He enrolled in accounting courses at Miami Dade College and later transferred to Florida International University, but landed on academic probation and dropped out. He was engaged to be married twice, and broke it off each time.

Beset by unpredictable panic attacks, Pastora turned to drugs and alcohol. “My life became completely unmanageable,’’ he said. Now sober, Pastora credits his recovery to a seven-month rehabilitation program at the Miami VA, particularly the music therapy that helped him channel his excess energy.

On the Lennon Bus, Pastora and his therapist, Elizabeth Stockton, performed the song Picture, by Cheryl Crow and Kid Rock, on guitars. Pastora said he chose Picture because “I related a lot to it, my drug addiction and PTSD.’‘ Since his stay at the VA, Pastora said, “There’s been a dramatic change’’ in his life.

He maintains a 3.5 grade point average at MDC and plans to transfer to FIU next semester to get an accounting degree.
He recently bought a house, and is engaged to be married. And he works at the Miami VA, providing support for social workers.

Pastora said the transition from military to civilian life can be particularly difficult for combat veterans, but he doesn’t expect special treatment for serving his country.
A little appreciation, though, can go a long way.

“Sometimes,’’ he said, “just showing that you care . . . is more than enough.’’