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For Alan Echeverria A War Of Nerves

By Kate Santich | Sentinel Staff Writer

January 25, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved. 

This is one in an occasional series of stories about military reservists and their families and how they cope in a climate of war.

The house sits at the end of a cul-de-sac, past the bulldozers and portable toilets and half-paved roads and -- today, at least -- a man in a truck going door to door to sell palm trees, six for $180.

Here is Alan Echeverria's American dream -- this slice of Orlando suburbia with the checkerboard of fresh sod and a few spindly trees staked in the front yard. Here is where he wants to raise his children, to befriend his neighbors, to gaze out his big picture window on a clear night and watch the moon rise.

On a break from unpacking boxes, he plops himself on the family room floor in a spot where a sofa will sit one day soon. His daughters immediately scramble for the first turn on his lap. The youngest, 16-month-old Gabriela, outmaneuvered by her big sister, takes a few wobbly steps, stumbles, falls and giggles. Walking is a new adventure.

He watches her wistfully. "This is what I am going to miss the most," he says. "I'd better appreciate it now."

Thirty-six-year-old Alan Echeverria -- or Captain E, as his soldiers call him -- figures it is only a matter of when he will leave now, not if. A 13-year veteran of the U.S. Army Reserve, he knows the threat of war with Iraq has raised the odds that his call to duty will come. And until it does, he wants to capture in his mind's eye every precious image he can -- the first steps of his toddler, the dancing of his 7-year-old, Sira, the girlish smile of his wife, 32-year-old Tereza.

But he cannot sit for long. These days, being an officer in the Army Reserve is no longer the part-time job it once was. Training has doubled from one weekend a month to two, during which the days stretch from dawn to well past sunset. And even when he is not officially training, there are administrative duties to fulfill and volumes of technical manuals to pore over.

At the moment, three of them -- obese notebooks crammed with paperwork -- await his attention.

"Tereza has to tell me, 'OK, you're coming to bed now,' " he says. "Because as soon as I come home from work, I'm either going through Army stuff or working in the garage, trying to get things unpacked, or I'm working in the attic, putting in a floor."

As it is, he sleeps only four hours a night.

Tereza shakes her head. "Everything is a mess -- first with the moving and now with this," she says.

She doesn't like to talk about it. She doesn't even like to say the word: War.

Sense of déjà vu

In some ways, Alan Echeverria has been waiting for war since that cataclysmic day when he stood horrified before a TV set, watching the second jetliner crash into the World Trade Center. He waited as his unit was put on alert and the soldiers were ordered not to venture beyond a 50-mile radius of home, just in case they should be called to leave suddenly. He waited as other units were shipped out and eventually sent home -- and some even shipped out a second time.

At first, he waited with a laptop computer in the trunk of his car and a bag packed with his uniform and steel-toed boots. He made arrangements at his job, as a financial counselor at Florida Hospital Altamonte, to take leave. He updated his will and filled out power-of-attorney forms for his wife. He had a long talk with his oldest daughter, trying to explain terrorism and politics and separation.

His heart quickened whenever the phone rang.

But weeks turned to months and then to a year and beyond. The focus of national security concerns shifted from Osama bin Laden's terrorist network to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's presumed weapons of mass destruction.

Echeverria, meanwhile, did the only thing he could, which was to go on with his life.

The family sold their old home, watched a new one be built, and moved into Echeverria's father's house in the interim. Boxes of their belongings filled the garage and half the living room. Two parents, two kids and one mother-in-law squeezed into two rooms.

Anticipation gave way to frustration and, ultimately, relief.

"The last time I was deployed, when I went to Korea, I left my wife alone in a new house with a 2-week-old baby, no refrigerator and not even running water," he says.

It was May 1995. Alan and Tereza signed the closing papers on their then-new home on the 31st, and Alan stayed up until midnight that night moving furniture. Then he slept for an hour, reported to his unit, and by 2:30 a.m. June 1 he was at the airport, headed to Korea, where he would be stationed for the next six months.

So this past year, just before Christmas, as the closing on another new house neared and troops began mobilizing, Tereza stopped her husband one night and cautioned: "Don't you dare do this to me again."

She was kidding.

Sort of.

In his father's footsteps

Tereza Echeverria tries to preempt news of the war. On her morning commutes to Hughes Supply Inc., where she works part-time as an accountant, snippets of radio updates may infiltrate her blissful ignorance before she can change the station, but she never seeks out such things. They would only make matters worse.

In those first few months after Sept. 11, Tereza had been sick with worry. She couldn't sleep. She could barely eat. She couldn't get the images of the devastation out of her head. She envisioned all manner of terrorist acts shattering her sense of sanctuary -- nuclear bombs, chemical warfare, anthrax contamination.

Ultimately, she found great comfort in trying to ignore it all.

"I know I am a hysterical person," she says. "But my husband is so calm. I think that's why we get along so well. He just says, 'If it was meant to be, it will happen.' "

Alan Echeverria, a man who studied computers in college, considers his fate philosophically.

"If it's your time to die, you will die," he will say. "You can have a heart attack at your desk. You can have an accident on the road. Look at the sniper in Virginia. Look at that guy, [Oklahoma City bomber Timothy] McVeigh. . . . At least in a war you know you're under attack, and you can be prepared for it."

He thinks like a soldier. After all, he was, in a way, born to it.

Growing up in Puerto Rico, his hero was his father, a man who spent more than 30 years in the military, retiring as a master sergeant. When his dad returned from duty, young Alan would try on his fatigues and march around the house.

"I want to follow in his footsteps. I want to rise to the challenge," Echeverria says. "When I get my uniform on, I feel like I'm doing something for my country."

This is a man so devoted to military service that when he scanned the color charts for his new home's exterior, he chose the closest thing to Army green he could find -- a sort of grayish sage.

Not only would he answer the call to serve; he hopes it will come.

His wife prays otherwise.

"If he needs to go, if he is called, there will always be the question -- will he come home safely?" she says. "But I know, if anything happens, that he did the right thing, that he did this for me and for his daughters, so that we can have a free country."

Squeezing out time

Across the nation, 34,000 Army Reservists have been activated. Some are in the Middle East. Another 172,000 stand ready. Last November, the Army, preparing for possible action in Iraq, issued a so-called stop-loss order -- reservists could no longer quit or transfer at will, with a small fraction of exceptions.

"This is, after all, the Army," Alan Echeverria says with a shrug. "You don't have the same liberties you do in civilian life."

A month earlier, he had taken charge of a new unit, his first command post. But the 520th Transportation Detachment, Movement Regulation Team, didn't just have an unwieldy name. It had, in essence, a whole new curriculum to learn.

It is part AAA, part Department of Transportation.

His soldiers are charged with monitoring supply highways and checking cargo and its documentation. If there were a spill of hazardous chemicals or a mechanical breakdown, they would be the ones to deal with it.

This is why his notebooks are so fat. This is why his training has doubled. The Army does a lot of schooling these days.

"They also encourage you to have a master's degree," he says. "Something in management or computers. I'm looking at that to see how I could make the time."

For the immediate future, he doesn't seem likely to find it.

After all, there are children to watch grow up. There are moments to savor in the house at the end of the cul-de-sac.

A couple of weeks ago, his mother and father came for a visit, just in case they don't get to see their son again for a year or more. When they parted, they followed a sort of family tradition, one that now comes with a tacit understanding of the fears they won't voice.

"See you later," they said.

"We are careful," Alan Echeverria explains. "We never say 'goodbye.' "

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