Local News

Monday, Mar 18 2013 08:00 PM

Former undercover operative healing 'soul injury'

  1. 1 of 1

    By Alex Horvath / The Californian

    In this file photo from January, Leticia Perez acknowledges applause from a packed Kern County Board of Supervisors chambers with her husband, Fernando Jara, and their son, Jude, after her swearing-in to represent the 5th District.

    click to expand click to collapse
BY JAMES BURGER Californian staff writer jburger@bakersfield.com

Fernando Jara's goal for the past seven years has been to stay "home."

He cannot be who he was for the more than four years that he lived in the Middle East, posing as a radical muslim convert.

Related Info

MORE OF THE STORY

For more on Fernando Jara's recruitment by the CIA and FBI -- and his undercover work in the Middle East -- read this account in the Los Angeles Times.

Jara tried to be that man and, at the same time, build a life in Bakersfield. He succeeded only in bringing the war home to his family and community.

So he learned to exhale the part of him that still yearns to be at war.

"I have to breathe it out, put it out into the air, in order to stay at home," he said. "I am not a warrior."

SERVICE

Jara grew up on the streets of east Bakersfield. Violence was part of his world.

He became, he said, a bald, tattooed, angry gang thug.

In his early teens he spent more than two years in custody, the last part of it in the California Youth Authority, for assault and battery. He was paroled at age 16 in 1992 and, with the help of mentors, put his life on a more productive path.

Jara got involved with the local Islamic community, becoming director of the Islamic Outreach Center on Ming Avenue and learning a little Arabic. But that interest was "fading," he said, when the world changed.

He was working in the oil fields and attending Bakersfield College at night when the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks hit. On impulse, after a passionate lecture from his American History professor Daymon Johnson, Jara fired of an email offering to help fight those who attacked the nation.

Then he forgot about it.

Not long after that, he said, he got a call to meet with operatives from the CIA and FBI.

They recruited him to become a pariah in his own home community, his country, in order to hunt terrorists.

"I come from a long line of soliders, since World War II," Jara said. "This was my war."

Jara trained to operate alone, integrate himself into the communities of his country's enemies and develop the networks of people and information needed to destroy those groups.

He systematically deceived the people he knew in Bakersfield, pretended to embrace radical Islam and left for the Middle East with everyone he knew and loved believing him to be a militant.

Then Jara went to work. The service was dark.

"You see the humanity in the other person and you destroy it. There's no glory in it. When you destroy that, you take a piece of yourself with it."

SPY

When Leticia Perez met Jara and a mutual friend for dinner in Chicago in 2006, her future husband cut an imposing figure: slim, muscled, well-financed and deeply confident. He was back in the country for one of his short breaks between missions.

He told her he was in the import-export business. She thought of spices and textiles.

Jara, whose real work was much darker, looked at her and saw the future.

"It was clear in 20 seconds of seeing her, 'That's my wife,'" Jara said. "There's so much life in her."

Both grew up in east Bakersfield. They'd met briefly as adults in 2002. But the connection four years later, near the end of his overseas work and her law school career, was powerful.

Just two months after that dinner, Jara invited Perez to Washington, D.C., for Valentine's Day and told her he was a U.S. counter-terrorism operative working undercover in the Middle East.

She was struck by the romance of the idea.

Perez remembers greeting him at Los Angeles International Airport that June as he got off an international flight and noting the flight number -- 007 -- with a thrill. The pair saw a lot of each other that summer.

At the end of the summer, they moved back to Bakersfield together, living in separate rooms in her parents' home.

Even before then Perez had noticed that Jara was in trouble. She just couldn't understand how much trouble.

SOUL MATE

"There is no question in my mind that Fernando is my soul mate," Perez said. "Apart we are not the same. Together we can surmount anything."

But it was an unlikely pairing.

Perez, now a Kern County supervisor, had been raised by a pastor father and an Army veteran mother. Her parents had aimed her at success from an early age.

He grew up a gang "thug" from a poor east Bakersfield family.

Perez said their differences complement each other. "I'm pragmatic to a fault," she said. "Fernando is a visionary. He sees greatness in people."

But when the two returned home to Bakersfield, the lives they were trying to merge were diverging sharply.

Perez worked for the United Farm Workers union while she studied for the bar. In February 2008 she started working for the Kern County Public Defender's office.

But Jara said he came home with a "soul injury." Human life, he said, seemed so fragile and valueless.

"For someone to say, 'you're special, you're great,' that's a hard statement to believe," Jara said.

Cut adrift from the job of war, he worked security, driving a PT Cruiser around Bakersfield's richer neighborhoods. When that didn't work out he took other jobs.

Perez met more and more of the man who had lived in the dark, violent world of the Middle East. Their relationship was on, then off, then on again.

Jara hopped couches and, eventually, ended up living out of his truck.

At the same time, Perez was developing relationships with the city's elite. He saw that world as plastic -- brittle and fake.

Perez said she loved Jara. But she got very tired, she said, and despaired.

HAIL MARY

"Leticia never gave up on me," Jara said.

But Perez said she came very close to giving up.

There was never any physical violence, she said. But Jara was arrested for public intoxication and resisting arrest, charges that were eventually dismissed.

Perez came to believe that the relationship "could blow up in (her) face."

One night in November 2009, exhausted by it all, Perez finally came to accept the reality of Jara's situation.

"Fernando had gone to a place mentally and spiritually that I could never understand," Perez said. "And he may never come back."

She called police to handle Jara, who was angry, railing against society.

He ended up in handcuffs at Kern Medical Center where a doctor, himself a veteran, recognized him as a warrior.

He told the officers to take off the handcuffs and embraced Jara.

"He said, 'Brother, you've got to get help,'" Jara said. "I wept in his arms."

And Jara's training -- his ability to find a way to survive when death had him cornered -- kicked in.

"Rule number one for us is to find a way out," Jara said. "We instinctively look for the Hail Marys."

In the Middle East, with his cover blown and people hunting for him, the way out had been "hugging the floorboards of a taxi" while he waited for the driver to betray him on the way to an airport.

In Bakersfield Jara could either accept that he was broken and collapse into despair.

Or he could look for a way out.

"If deconstructing the world around me wasn't working, maybe I should try constructing something."

Jara was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, a diagnosis he struggled to accept.

"Guys like me don't break," he said.

But he faced the diagnosis and got treatment.

And he packed his bags and moved into a bunk with 20 felons at the rehabilitation home that would one day become Rockhill Farm.

ROCKHILL FARM

Rockhill Farm was only a farm in name when Jara came there. It was a residential rehabilitation facility for felons that was connected with Perez's father's church.

The part of the five-acre property that was dedicated to growing things, Perez said, was filled with 20 years of trash and beer bottles.

Jara turned it into a farm again.

The farm shaped him and he shaped the farm.

"I found men like me -- who'd grown up with unspeakable violence," Jara said. "I thought, 'If I can help them have something to lose, then maybe I can have that for myself, too.'"

Jara started to put the pieces of himself back together, he said, "like Frankenstein and his monster."

He got his master's degree in divinity and began working on his doctorate.

Jara and Perez made it through. They got married on June 12, 2010. They had a son, Jude.

And Jara stood behind her as she launched her political career.

Part of his repair, Jara said, was coming to his family and the larger community of Bakersfield and repairing those relationships.

Few believed his story. Even his family still struggles to accept what he has told them. He understands why.

When he tells people about what he did, he is telling them that he spent years lying to and misleading them.

Their natural reaction, Jara said, is to see the story as a gimmick -- a way to explain why he apparently abandoned America and left to join the militants who attacked it.

"How do I redeem myself for misleading people?" he said.

That redemption has come slowly, but it has come.

"This is my home and I'm not at war anymore," he said. "I feel like I fought to be here and I'll be damned if anybody can tell me I don't belong here."

COMMUNITY

His path to a new life has been easier, Jara said, because he didn't come home to a hero's welcome.

Heros don't have injuries so they can't be healed of hurts.

"If you have a soul injury because of war, you cannot continue to live within your warrior culture," he said. "If you're a Marine and you want to come home, you've got to stop being a Marine."

It is what Jara had to do.

"I can't watch war movies. I'm not going to watch Zero Dark Thirty," he said. "I have to let that go in the way that an alcoholic has to stop drinking."

But Jara believes that both the veteran and the community share a commitment to each other.

War is a community exercise, he said. Society has to accept responsibility for violence it sanctioned and advanced.

Those who stayed at home played a role by maintaining the community that soldiers were fighting to protect until warriors could return and rejoin it.

But some veterans can "tend not to respect and admire the stability that has been maintained for them."

And the community is capable of abandoning its veterans, Jara said.

"The community needs to bring its veterans back in," he said. "That's part of the social bargain."

Welcoming a veteran home in a storm of red, white and blue at the airport is easy to do. Fixing the broken lives of veterans on the street is harder.

"Don't give away trinkets to our soldiers," he said. "Help them feel normalized in this world again."

Have something to share? Comment on this story
Today's Daily Deal
from
Bakersfield.com
$7.50
Daily Deal Image
Star's Cafe
$15 of Food for only $7.50 from Stars Cafe
  • Value
    $15
  • Savings
    $7.50
  • Bought
    23
Buy Now