Los Angeles Times Service
STANLEY, Falkland Islands - Oscar Ismael Poltronieri is a slight, wiry
man with only a first-grade education
who was raised on a farm outside Buenos Aires. He can neither read nor write. But he is one of the most
decorated Argentine heroes of the Falkland Islands war.
Poltronieri is one of a few men, and the only private, to win the Cross
of the Argentine People for Heroic Combat,
the army's highest battlefield honor.
Standing alone on a mountaintop with a machine gun, he twice held off British
soldiers and allowed his comrades
''What's been my reward?'' he asked, repeating a reporter's question. ''Well,
they say I owe $35,000 on the house
[the city government] gave me.'' Only the down payment was free, and now if he doesn't make the payments
``they're going to evict me in two months.''
Poltronieri recounts his story inside the Buenos Aires offices of the House
of the War Veteran, an anachronism of
patriotic fervor, where the glory of the war is preserved in a photograph in the hallway that depicts an Argentine
marine taking several British soldiers prisoner.
''It was a sad experience because we went there to win,'' said Juan Mendicino,
president of the veterans' house.
``We gave our lives. And for what? To let them take something that was ours.''
The veterans earn a paltry pension of about $125 a month. Laws passed after
the war grant them priority for
government jobs, medical services and subsidized housing, but are rarely followed.
Although the government does not keep such statistics, there is widespread
agreement that veterans suffer from
high levels of mental illness and homelessness.
''The situation in which they are living is absolutely humiliating,'' said
María Alejandra López, a volunteer
psychologist at the veterans' house. ``They're stigmatized as being aggressive and dangerous.
``There are some veterans who are still living in a situation of permanent
horror. And there are many more who
feel guilty for not having won the war. What they feel, above all, is a break with their innocence.''
The overwhelming majority of Argentine soldiers were teenagers, most of
them from towns in the impoverished
northern provinces. In 1982, they set off for the Falklands from an Argentina united behind the war.
''The war we made wasn't worth anything,'' said Poltronieri, unemployed and a father of four.
``If we had won it or lost it we would still be in the same position. But
if I had to go, I would go again. I would go
for all the things I left behind. I left my brothers there. And I would go back for them.''