Palacios veteran adjusts to life after Afghanistan (Video)

By by Dianna Wray - DWRAY@VICAD.COM
Dec. 3, 2012 at 6:03 a.m.
Updated Dec. 4, 2012 at 6:04 a.m.

PALACIOS - He's always waiting for the ground to explode beneath him.

Joseph Hooper, 23, strolled through the darkness of downtown Palacios, a solitary figure on the cool November night.

As a teenager, he and his friends were constantly planning their big escape: How they would leave this sleepy coastal town and get out into the exciting stuff, the real living.

He still looks very young. He is young, although he has a wife and baby daughter, until he starts to talk about Afghanistan. Lines of control pull at his face. His blue eyes get cloudy, and his voice is even and steady, each word said with the fluid concentration of a man on a high wire.

It's been more than a year since he came back from his tour of duty, but he still has moments where he is afraid to take a step, waiting for the improvised exploding device he hasn't seen to erupt underneath his feet.

He walked down Main Street, hands in his pockets. He'd wanted to see the world. Now, he is trying to forget what he saw.

As a freshman in high school, Hooper, a skinny, rawboned kid with a sharp-drawn nose and jutting cheekbones framed by ears that his face would have to catch up with, decided he would sign up for armed service.

His father hated the idea and fought with his son every time the issue came up, but, finally, in his junior year of high school, Hooper told his dad he wanted to sign up for the Marines. Seeing how determined his son was, Hooper's father sighed and signed the forms.

That was how Hooper found himself in Sangin, Afghanistan, with the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines in October 2010.

The town was a stronghold of the Taliban, a center of the drug trade that provided their funding. The British handed over the territory to the Marines after losing more troops there than in the rest of Afghanistan.

Sangin was declared the most dangerous city on earth by the president. Hooper learned that after.

None of the men, most new recruits experiencing combat for the first time, knew what a dangerous place they were walking into.

"We had no idea," Hooper said, remembering. "This is the real thing. All the cards were on the table. All the training that you did for the past year leads up to this. It wakes you up."

Arriving in Afghanistan was like landing on the moon. The first time they left the base, bullets were flying at them. They were pinned down, out in the open. As night fell, they were still out in the open, exposed.

That was the scariest night, out in the darkness, wondering when they would be attacked again. Did these guys operate at night?

"We did everything we could to make sure we could bring everybody back. Well, that wasn't the case," Hooper said.

The next morning, they were on the move again when the call went out over the radio that a man was down. John Sparks, a big, soft-spoken guy from Chicago, had been shot in the chest by insurgents.

Sparks was the first, but he wouldn't be the last. Men were constantly injured and killed. They lost 25 troops before the tour was over.

Out there, he couldn't lean on his family, on his wife, on anyone but the men he was serving with. To survive, he had to keep his head here, so he couldn't think about his wife, Mary, pregnant with their first child, or allow himself to mourn the Marines who died.

Back in Palacios, Hooper's father kept getting reports of Marines killed in Sangin, and he spent hours looking for news from Sangin.

Mary Hooper kept her cellphone glued to her side, hoping her husband might get a chance to call her and terrified that someone would call her with news about him.

Early one November morning, the phone rang. She answered it, still groggy from sleep.

She snapped awake when she heard her husband's voice. He told her he had been injured. He told her to be calm.

They were out on patrol, and the platoon sergeant stepped in front of him. The ground exploded beneath them. The platoon sergeant's legs were blown off. Hooper was knocked to the ground, the right side of his body riddled with shrapnel and burned from the blast.

Somehow he could still walk, despite a gash in his right leg, and he was hauled to his feet. Walking was excruciating, but he got back, sprinting the last yards to safety, where he started getting treatment.

Shrapnel had just missed the jugular vein in his neck, he had third-degree burns from the blast and a gash in his thigh that was riddled with more shrapnel, a violent mess of torn skin.

Hooper got on the phone from a base hospital, and called his wife as soon as he could so she wouldn't hear it from anyone else.

Mary Hooper called her father-in-law with the news, and then they waited for an official report.

Hooper had the choice of getting shipped to Germany and coming home, but he decided to go back to Sangin. He didn't want to leave his comrades behind.

Back home, Mary and Henry worked to understand his decision and counted the days until his deployment would be over.

In April, just weeks before the birth of his daughter, Hooper left Afghanistan. By then, deaths and injuries happened so often they all blurred together. The men used to walk carefully, searching for signs of IEDs, but now they stepped without a thought, resigned to the fact that the ground might erupt beneath them.

He left Afghanistan, but that wasn't the end of the fight.

Hooper had always been a relaxed guy, but he came home with a live-wire energy coursing through him. He couldn't talk about what he had been through, couldn't even tell his wife about the things he had seen.

"I guess it was nice to step on some ground and know it wasn't going to blow up underneath me, but it was still hard," he said, remembering. "For a while, I'd still watch where I stepped, and I was still waiting for the ground to blow up underneath me."

As he settled in at the base in California, he started drinking. He was at the bar every day, and he would spend whole paychecks on alcohol. He drank so much he couldn't walk and felt like he couldn't breath.

The marriage got rocky, and they almost divorced.

"You don't ever realize it until it just hits you," he said. "You wake up and realize, 'I've got to fix myself.'"

As his life and family continued to unravel, Hooper decided that something would have to change. He decided to leave the service.

He also bought a motorcycle, and as he flew down winding roads, focused on steering the bike as adrenaline pumped through his veins, his mind started to clear. He came back from these rides calm for the first time in months.

The little family came home to Palacios in July. In just a year, he'd gone from the world of war back to the town where he'd spent his childhood dreaming of seeing the world.

He works for an oil field company, but he is restless.

He thought he was done with the life of service, but lately the longing for that jolt of adrenaline from combat has been running through him and with it the camaraderie of those who serve together.

Standing beneath a streetlight, he stuffed his hands in his pockets and peered into the darkness on the edge of the amber glow. There are stories he doesn't tell, things that happened that he will never share with anyone, not even Mary.

"If I don't talk about it, I don't have any problems. So I don't talk about it," he said



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