‘Facing Stigma’ with Alex J.

“I was born in Guadalajara, Mexico and immigrated to the United States when I was three years old. We initially came here illegally seeking opportunity; however, we were deported and came back to Williams, CA once we legally got our residency. I had a great upbringing but it was difficult financially with my parents working in the field. When I was 8 years old, my dad died in a car accident so my mom was faced with the choice of going back to Mexico or staying in the US. She decided to continue raising us here because my dad’s dream was for my siblings and I to get an education. However, once I graduated high school, I knew I wanted to join the service rather than go off to college. I joined the Army and signed on to be a mechanic before shipping off to basic training in July 2003. As soon as I got to my first duty station, I was shipped to Baghdad for a 12 month tour. We were doing a lot of convoys and escorting a private contracting company, KBR. They were tasked with resupplying area units. Once I got back from that tour, we were sent back on a second deployment not long after. We deployed in June 2006 to Al Taqaddum, Iraq. We were repeatedly targeted by IEDs, and I n March of 2007 we finally hit one. The truck caught on fire so I jumped in to pull my fellow soldier out and ended up receiving a Valor device because of it. After the explosion we were trying to gather ourselves when all of a sudden the enemy ambushed us out of nowhere. Luckily a local infantry unit came in and evacuated us out. That day I decided to reenlist as infantry because I never wanted to be in another situation where I couldn’t defend myself.

I was assigned to the 82nd airborne division after reclassifying into infantry and completing basic training. In 2009, we were sent to Arghandab River Valley in the Kandahar province. We got into a few fire fights while we were there, but we were mostly dealing with a bunch of IEDs. We found over 100 IEDs that deployment and by the time we left, over 60% of our company were wounded in one way or another. Once we returned home from that deployment, we were sent right back over to the Kandahar province because we had so much success finding IEDs the first time. While I was out on a mission, I spotted a grave by itself. It was odd and didn’t sit right with me, so I started digging and found a wire. I took some pictures and showed the EOD techs, but while I was doing that, I got a call about another device that had been found. As I was making my way over to check it out, I ended up stepping on an IED that nobody had seen. At first you don’t feel any pain and you’re disoriented as time seems to freeze. After a while, the adrenaline fades and everything starts to set in. I started losing consciousness because I’d lost so much blood and the last thing I remember was them saying we were five minutes out. I ended up losing both my legs, two finger tips, and my hearing on my right side. I spent two years at Walter Reed basically learning how to walk and how to live again. Mentally I was doing well at that time because I was very motivated to walk and it’s really hard to feel sorry for yourself at Walter Reed. You see so many other people who have it worse and there’s great community support there. However, once I left and moved back home, the recovery process became increasingly more difficult.

Once I got back home, I started hanging out with my old high school friends and partying more. I was doing drugs and drinking alcohol and ended up developing a real problem. I slowly started isolating myself and becoming depressed to the point that I was really struggling more from a mental aspect than a physical. Luckily a veteran friend of mine was really persistent on making me get out of the house and do things that were more productive. I got my wife and kids back after going through that rough patch and all of that helped play a part in getting my life turned back around. I started a business not long ago and became a commercial bee keeper. We started with 75 beehives and now we have about 800. Our stuff goes straight from the beehive to a container and into a bottle. There’s no filtration, we don’t strain it; it’s completely 100% all natural. Every once in awhile I still have those days where I go through mental health struggles, but I’m doing EMDR now too. It helps to rewire those traumatic events and process the feelings that go along with anniversaries and times I struggle. It also helps being able to talk to somebody and process those memories. I’m very fortunate in the sense that you can see my wounds. I have friends that are nine deployments in and when they get out they don’t stand out like me, but it doesn’t mean they are struggling any less. There isn’t a lot of support out there for those guys struggling with the hidden wounds of war which is why you have to tip your hat to organizations that are helping veterans behind closed doors.”

To provide mental health treatment to veterans like Alex, please consider donating to the Headstrong Project at http://getheadstrong.org/donate/

Healing the hidden wounds of war