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Frank Cabadiana feels it all slipping away.
Frank Cabadiana feels it all slipping away.
Michael McElroy

War for What?

Frank Cabadiana is a short, pit bull of a man who, as a 41-year-old National Guard sergeant, used to awe the younger soldiers in his unit by doing 20 one-handed pushups with each hand while delivering a lecture on the virtues of keeping fit.

But he has lost a lot of physical luster since he was mobilized to Iraq with the 124th Infantry Regiment in February 2003. There's the continuously unnerving ringing in his ears now and the grinding headaches -- the result of a homemade bomb exploding a few feet from his right ear. And then there are the lingering effects of an April heart attack, a powerful mule kick to the chest that flattened him in a hospital bed, leaving him weak and depressed. "I can't even do five pushups anymore," he says.

Nowadays, he rattles around a little duplex in Hollywood, in a tidy neighborhood west of State Road 7, like a caged tiger. No, it's not the physical disability that has him down, he says, but the sudden absence of his sprightly, 34-year-old wife, Patricia, and his 10-year-old stepson, Adrian, who tended to him after his return from the tough neighborhoods of Ramadi.

In July, immigration officials took Patricia, an undocumented native of Ecuador, into custody because of an outstanding deportation order, and Adrian was shipped off to relatives in New York. "My nuclear family is gone," Cabadiana says with palpable despair. "My dream of making a home with my family, kissing my wife, taking my son to school -- everything I fought for -- it vanished."

Cabadiana is driven to distraction by thoughts of his wife, whom he describes as "my companion, my nurse, my friend." Patricia Cabadiana is now incommunicado in the Monmouth County Detention Facility in Freehold, New Jersey. "Another inmate who was released told me, 'Frank, you've got to get her out of there,'" he recounts. "She says Patricia has lost more than 30 pounds and that she had a miscarriage." The other inmate told him that Patricia has been bullied by fellow inmates and that she often sleeps on the floor without a mattress.

"She has a lot of heart, a lot of faith," Cabadiana says. "She's reading the Bible."

Cabadiana, a 23-year veteran of the Army and the National Guard, could be the poster child for the gung-ho Bush administration military. He speaks of his experience in Iraq in terms of a crusade to free poor Iraqis, and he talks without embarrassment of his love for his country and his flag. If he could get those once-impressive physical powers back, he says, he'd willingly go back to active duty in Iraq. "They need us there," he says."I believe we gotta free these people."

But his sudden collision with "the system" has left him shaken. "Everything's in the hands of others -- judges, congressmen," he says, brooding over a sheaf of documents from Patricia's case as a television set gives a droning report of the most recent suicide bombing in Iraq.

The problem is that the Cabadianas are caught at the intersection of a wartime military, with all the urgent demands on its personnel, and a newly Draconian immigration system, which has zero tolerance for deviations from the rules. The demands of each -- particularly when it comes to balancing military assignments with stateside office appointments -- are often contradictory. "There are tons of cases like this," says Margaret Stock, who teaches immigration law at West Point, referring to the Cabadianas' case. "It goes on all the time."

The kinds of immigration law exceptions that might allow Patricia Cabadiana to stay in this country are, in the current atmosphere of terrorism and paranoia, as rare as pearls in pig slop. "It's no to everything now," Stock says. "We live in a culture of 'no,' because of the perception out there that the government has been soft on immigrants."

If you're a noncitizen who has joined the Army or Marines, the citizenship process has become easier. There are about 37,000 noncitizens in the military, with more than 3,000 "green-card soldiers" having served already in Iraq. President Bush has streamlined the system to make them full-fledged Americans -- though many still find their applications delayed because of their inability to meet appointment schedules. But the undocumented relatives of soldiers involved in the war have no special recourse. "There's no statute that says the spouse of a military person is protected from deportation," Stock says.

Patricia Cabadiana's plight is made worse by the fact that she has a criminal record. As a teenager in Southern California, she was arrested for shoplifting -- placing her automatically in a special hell reserved by the immigration code for those convicted of crimes. "I don't understand," Cabadiana says, who contends that the theft was a teenage prank. "Why is she treated like our worst criminals?"

That's thanks to a 1996 law that categorizes even minor crimes committed by nonresidents as justification for denying status change, says South Florida immigration lawyer Ira Kurzban, who teaches at Nova Southeastern University. The Cabadianas' only remedy, he adds, is either to win an exception from immigration authorities, which is rare, or to persuade the U.S. Congress to pass a "private bill" authorizing a status adjustment for Patricia Cabadiana, which is rarer still. "You don't hear about those kinds of cases very often," Kurzban says. "It means you have to get a majority of the members of both houses of Congress."

The Cabadianas met through mutual friends in 1997 in New York, where Frank was stationed at Fort Totten in Queens. They hit it off immediately. There was the Ecuadorian connection -- Frank was born in Guayaquil, though he had come to the States as a teenager and become a citizen in 1990, and she was from nearby Manabi. They both had upbeat, high-spirited personalities that clicked. Within months, they went to the Municipal Building in downtown Manhattan and got married. Then they hired a lawyer and applied for permanent residence status for Patricia.

But the papers got misdirected when they moved to Florida in 1998, Cabadiana says now. "The lawyer put the wrong address down, and we never got them," he says. If they had, the Cabadianas would have realized that, not only had permanent residence been denied to Patricia but, on September 22, 1998, a federal immigration judge in New York had ordered her deported.

In Florida, Cabadiana worked as a banquet worker at the Weston Hills Country Club and ran a car detailing service while spending a weekend every month with the National Guard. After he was called up for active duty in Iraq, Cabadiana quickly made a name for himself for both his warmth of personality and his physical strength "He was a good person and as strong as an ox," says Spc. Oliver Perez, a Florida International University student who served in Iraq in Cabadiana's company. As the regiment settled into the dangerous Sunni triangle, Cabadiana was made a squad leader, supervising nine men on patrols on the treacherous east side of Ramadi. The unit's principal thoroughfare was Highway 10, the "Highway of Death," which cuts through Ramadi toward Baghdad.

Cabadiana was injured September 15, 2003. While traveling in a small convoy bringing food to soldiers in the field, he passed an ice stand. The vendor, who had aroused the suspicions of a squad leader riding ahead, had disappeared. As Cabadiana's Humvee passed, a bomb hidden in a container of ice exploded. "There was a loud roar, like thunder in a hurricane," says Cabadiana, who was sitting in the passenger seat. "Thank God, nobody was hurt." Fragments flattened the car's tire and knocked a hole in the radiator while the bomb carved a foot-deep crater out of the hardtop road. But the only serious physical casualty was to the sergeant's hearing.

"We were blessed that morning," Cabadiana says.

Cabadiana tried to soldier on, but the ringing in his ears got worse and worse, he says. A month and a half after the explosion, with a constant zuzzz zuzzz in his ears, a doctor declared him unfit for service at the front. "My high-frequency hearing is gone," says Cabadiana, who now uses a hearing aid. "The doctors say it will only get worse."

When his papers are processed, Cabadiana will be the 24th member of Charlie Company, in his regiment's First Battalion, to receive a Purple Heart.

Back in Hollywood, Cabadiana was set to settle in for some well-deserved rest and relaxation with his wife and stepson. A big yellow bow is still attached to the front of the house, a fading reminder of his happy return. When he stepped through the door, Patricia and Adrian were there to give him the kind of home comfort he had imagined while on patrol. "It was everything I dreamed about," he says.

But while driving to Orlando to hook up with his family for a Disney World visit, Cabadiana's left side suddenly went numb. "I just followed the 'hospital' signs, driving with one hand, using one eye to see," he says. "When I got there, I crawled into the ER and told them, 'Please help me. '" He had suffered a myocardial infarction -- a classic heart attack -- with four blood vessels blocked.

"They told me, 'You're one lucky soldier,'" he says.

Cabadiana's mother, Olga Perez, who lives in uptown Manhattan, insists that the heart attack resulted from the war. "The stress, the heat over there, and the high fat diet that they were feeding him -- that's what caused it," she says.

Three months later, while he was recuperating at home, Patricia went out on an errand. She was stopped for a minor traffic violation by Miami police, who searched her records and found an outstanding federal warrant in her name. She was extradited to New York and then, on September 1, placed in custody in the New Jersey jail. "The doctor told me he wants me to have zero stress," Cabadiana says, with a pained look.

Tim Emmons, a spokesman for the jail, which holds immigration detainees under a contract with the Homeland Security Administration, says that Patricia is being held in a dormitory and that it was "unlikely" she had been deprived of a mattress. They acknowledged that she had received medical treatment, but they could not say for what. But a request to interview her on the telephone received no response.

Cabadiana has enlisted the help of Rep. Kendrick Meek, a South Florida Democrat, who has requested a stay on the deportation order for Patricia. "The problem is that Sgt. Cabadiana filed [with immigration authorities] for his wife, but he never followed up on the petition," says Meek's aide, Ernesto Ramos. "That makes it very, very hard. But we're not giving up."

Cabadiana is still deeply perplexed about the rigidity of the laws that he has risked his life to defend. "Everything was for zero," Cabadiana says, flipping the remote control to CNN on his television, where there are pictures of soldiers patrolling in Iraq. "There's emptiness in my heart and in my home."


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