When Cpl. Phillip Ramos went home after Operation Iraqi Freedom, he knew he'd go back into harm's way. He couldn't leave things the way they were. Two close friends, brothers in arms, were dead and he didn't believe anyone really knew or appreciated their sacrifice or his service.
In 2005, Ramos, a Ceres High graduate, re-enlisted for four more years and returned to Iraq over the objections of his mother, Gaylene Ramos. Just before his first tour ended, Gaylene had made a vow witnessed by about 25 other parents and spouses of service members.
"It was at a Blue Stars meeting," she recalled with a smile. "Another mother, I think Karen was her name, said if her son re-enlisted, she'd kill him herself. I got up right after and said I'd do the same."
In her scrapbook, Gaylene keeps the mementos of her son's service and the family's ordeal. There is a picture of the hulk of a jeep, the wreckage in which her son escaped from what he called the "kill zone" when the vehicle was hit by two rocket-propelled grenades.
Ramos, 31, added some detail to the stark pictures. His sergeant caught fire from the RPGs. The fire, however, was so hot, it melted water bottles; that water put out the fire. The sergeant escaped serious injury.
There is the somber scene of a soldier's memorial, with a flag, rifle and empty boots. His friend, Adam Froelich, had been blown up on a rooftop searching for improvised explosive devices.
"They said he was standing right over (the device), saw it and gave the sergeant a look like he knew he was going to die," Ramos said. "And then it blew up."
Froelich had been the kind of friend, Ramos said, who always made those around him happy.
Of all the people who know Phillip Ramos, his father, Bernard, may realize the burden he carries. Bernard choked up trying to explain the unexplainable.
"I was a soldier in the Vietnam War," he said. "I saw people die. I know what he's going through."
Through tears, he indicated that he wished he could take his son's burden away.
"He has to stay focused," he said. "He has to trust his men and they have to trust him."
Of all the wounds this combat veteran carries, an incident on the trip home cuts Ramos the deepest.
He recently started his 18-day leave in the middle of his latest 15-month tour of Iraq. After a flight from Kuwait, he was put on a flight from Dallas to Sacra- mento. He was on standby status and was bumped, along with three other GIs, just before takeoff.
"Don't just shake my hand and tell me you appreciate what I'm doing. Back it up with something," said Ramos in an appeal to Americans on behalf of all serving soldiers.
"The stewardess offered everyone on that flight $300, (a free) dinner and a seat on the 7:50 p.m. plane," said Ramos.
"No one took it. No one understood what it was like to be flying for 20 hours (from Kuwait)."
It is something Ramos said he never will forget.
"I had to go back (to the service and Iraq) for my (deceased) friends," he said.
But now he's satisfied, although he doesn't believe the mission he started will be completed.
"You can pretty much tell what's gonna happen from the American people," he said.
Ramos said most deployed troops expect the next president abruptly to bring the troops home after the election. He said most of the soldiers he knows plan to vote Democratic because they believe they'll be home faster if a Democrat is elected president.
He believes the recent lag in casualties is because one Muslim leader called a cease-fire, not because of a troop surge.
"It's a ploy to get us to pull back," Ramos said, "and when we do, they take over Iraq again."
The issue, he insisted, isn't how many soldiers we have serving in Iraq, "It's about how many die."
For his part, he believes he was making the right kind of progress in rebuilding the Iraqi police force.
"They are smarter than we think they are, but sometimes, they're playing us."
Even as police are trained, there are overriding suspicions.
"The night this IP (Iraqi policeman) was killed, his companions backed off and didn't do anything," he said. "Then they went back and said we killed him."
Ramos said he still is trying to rebuild trust after that incident.
Though he still trusts the men in his squad with his life, he said the Army has changed, too, since the war began. The Army has had to lower its standards to keep the ranks filled, he said.
Area recruiters could not comment on Ramos' claim, but a recent study by the National Priorities Project, a research group that has been outspoken against the Iraq war, concluded that slightly more than 70 percent of new recruits joining the active-duty Army last year had a high school diploma, nearly 20 percentage points lower than the Army's goal of at least 90 percent, according to The Washington Post.
The Army previously acknowledged that it has not met the 90 percent mark since 2004.
Officials at U.S. Army Recruiting Command disputed the group's numbers, but not the trend, the Post reported.
"There are more recruits with no discipline and none of our values," Ramos lamented.
So he expects this to be his last tour of duty. He is leaving the Army for good about a year after he comes home from Iraq in August.
Ramos is satisfied for himself and his departed friends. "I've done enough."
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