By Lester Orellana
I am a retired, wounded combat veteran—I joined the Army at 18 in 2002. I chose to join the military because I immigrated to the United States at the age of 7 and felt it was my duty to give back to a country that has given me so much opportunity.
I first deployed to Iraq with the First Calvary Division from March 2004 to March 2005 to Sadr City in northern Baghdad. My second tour was with the 101st Airborne Division from September 2005 to September 2006 to what is known as the Sunni Triangle of Death in Baghdad.
As a combat engineer, my main mission was route clearance and routine patrols. During both deployments, I was exposed to multiple firefights and more than 20 improvised explosive device (IED) blasts, one of which caused me serious injury, and I lost 9 of my comrades.
My injuries required that I be medically retired from the military. I was only 25 and, which such an abrupt exit, I had no plan in mind when I left the military. I decided to take advantage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill and enrolled in Rutgers-Camden University. However, I was still suffering from not only my physical injuries from the IED blast but also traumatic brain injury (TBI) and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I had been profoundly changed and was no longer the same person I was before my military experience.
I was attending both school and regular physical therapy appointments, but I refused to seek help for my mental anguish. I was married, raising two children, and struggling to deal with life after Iraq. I began to withdraw from everyone, even from my kids, the most important people in the world to me. I started self-medicating, depending on alcohol and my pain medications to cope with daily life. The recurring flashbacks to my experiences in Iraq and memories of the comrades I lost were leading me to a dark place—I felt suicidal.
At that point, I decided I needed help; I was struggling to balance my home life, my education, and my well-being.
I started to take advantage of all the benefits that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) had to offer, as well as the help provided at Rutgers. The best thing anyone can do before leaving the military is to do research on all the benefits provided to veterans and enroll with the VA healthcare system. Adjusting to school after my military career was difficult, but Rutgers provided assistance to veterans. The best thing to do is to reach out to other veterans, don’t ever forget that you are not alone. Rutgers provided assistance, which was instrumental for me while attending school. I was able to graduate from Rutgers-Camden University with a bachelor in arts and today I work for the VA regional office in Philadelphia as a financial administrative specialist. There is a stigma in the military that having a mental illness is for those who are weak; however, it’s exactly the opposite. What I know now is that it takes a strong individual to realize they are struggling with mental illness and to seek the help.