When Sergio joined the Marine Corps in 1999, he expected the service to be physically taxing and strict – and it was. But that was fine by him; he chose the Marine Corps in part because he had heard it was difficult. He wanted a challenge.
In 2003, Sergio took part in the Iraq Invasion. At first, he was excited about the job, the travel and the diverse experience he was gaining: “When we were told we’d be flying to Kuwait,” he said, “we were all excited to finally put what we had learned to practical use.”
In many ways, the challenges of war were what he anticipated: exposure to hostile fire, missing the freedoms of civilian life, his friends, and most of all, his family. There was, however, one aspect that Sergio and his peers did not predict.
“Most of it was all a part of war. It was expected. We had trained for it,” he said. “One thing we weren’t prepared for was the psychological effects it would have on everyone.”
Within three weeks of being back stateside, Sergio’s four years in the Marine Corps were up. There wasn’t much preparation for the transition to civilian life, he said – a short talk from the Marine Corps, but nothing about the possibility of psychological effects like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or depression.
What followed Sergio’s return home from Iraq was four years of self medicating to try to escape the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder he was experiencing due to a lack of proper mental health support services. As a result, he ended up incarcerated, and in 2007 was court-ordered to New Directions.
Sergio admits that when he first came to New Directions, he assumed that he would leave as soon as his court-ordered six months were up, but that the program surprised him.
“New Directions helped me much more than I thought it would. At first, I was thinking I would go back to doing what I was doing when I left. I thought that drugs would stop my problems. Once I started seeing a psychiatrist, I realized there was another way.”
While at New Directions, Sergio was able to see a psychiatrist at the VA who diagnosed him with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, gave him suggestions for how to cope, and prescribed medication for his service-related PTSD. Being surrounded by veterans who had gone through the same experiences helped him realize that it’s never a weakness to ask for help. Sergio also learned from – and was encouraged by – older veterans who told him what they would have done differently with their lives if they had had the necessary knowledge and resources when they were younger.
Today Sergio is going to school to be an RN. He values being close to his family, the time he can spend riding his motorcycle, and painting – a hobby he took up while at Chris’ Place, New Directions’ community-based residential home for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.