Petty Officer Second Class, FMF Corpsman U.S. Navy (ret.)
By Erin Cartaya
I’m Here for a Reason
When does failure turn into success? When do feel like you are here for something greater than what you thought life had to offer?
“I felt like a failure; because I couldn’t even take my own life.”
When Junior Rodriguez reflects on the dark times in his life, he often wonders who is up there looking out for him. He knows there’s a reason he’s here. He knows he has a purpose and will continue searching for it as long as possible. Being a part of the Warrior Foundation and becoming the Program Director of the Wolfpack (the San Diego wheelchair basketball team) has been one of the most meaningful things for Junior since his time in the Military. You won’t see him boasting or touting his accomplishments. You will, however, see him celebrating with his athletes and bonding with the Wolfpack. “Wolfpack is my family. Like family at Thanksgiving.”
PTSD is a quiet Devil that continuously haunts your mind – no matter who you are with or what you’re going through. Some days are Hell. Some days maybe not so much. Each day, you never know. When the physical pain subsides and injuries heal, the stress and emotion from PTSD never fade. But even when you feel alone, it’s important to remember that you’re not alone. That’s what the Warrior Foundation taught Junior. He finally found people around to talk to, to listen, and to support him. When Junior found the Warrior Foundation, he found himself. With a renewed sense of purpose, Junior can face these demons and come out the other side, stronger. Working with the Wolfpack, Junior knows he has a support system that will always be by his side, no matter what each ay brings.
When you can’t run away from even your own mind, you hit rock bottom. But you have to hit rock bottom, says Junior, because at the bottom is where you can look up to see what you have on the other side.
“You have to go through Hell to get to Peace.”
Junior continues to fight through Hell. One day at a time. “Sometimes, one hour at a time.” This time, however, he has a purpose, a belonging, a family.
Serving His Time
Junior joined the Military partly through college, following in his family’s footsteps. His dad was in the Navy; his sister was in the Army, and his great uncle was a Marine Corp Officer during the Vietnam War; he thought it was the right thing to do. He was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan and faced several injuries that he would recover from….physically. It wasn’t long after healing from an injury that a more permanent injury surfaced: PTSD. Seeing, dreaming, and remembering; it would ultimately become what Junior thought would take him from this world. It wouldn’t be until years later that Junior understood how his role in service and now after impacts his own life, his daughters, and his brothers (the WolfPack).
The Warrior Foundation Finds Junior
Dealing with PTSD wasn’t easy for Junior. He never accepted the severity of it; he only got angry. But while serving as an intern at the medical center, Junior was approached by a woman. Not thinking anything of it, Junior dismissed this approach and carried on. Soon after, he was encouraged to head to the Health & Wellness center one morning.
It was a Saturday, 8 am.
It would be the day that changed Junior’s life. It would be the day Junior learned about wheelchair basketball, the Warrior Foundation, and its Co-Founder and CEO, Sandy Lehmkuhler. Talking with Sandy, all she said to him was “to embrace it.” But when Junior saw himself retiring, still angry, unsure where his life was going, he was recommended to the Warrior Foundation and saw Sandy waiting for him when he arrived.
“This is your home now,” she said. But Junior didn’t want to believe it. Instead, he got into his car and drove to his dad in Houston. It was then Junior realized he had a choice. He could stay home and find a job or go back to California to “finish what he started.” When Junior found himself back in California, Sandy was there waiting. And he hasn’t left her side since.
The Warrior Foundation led Junior to the Wolfpack, San Diego’s adaptive sports team. The military wheelchair basketball team includes active duty and veteran U.S. Army, Marine Corps, and Navy players. While the players have sustained life-changing injuries such as amputations, spinal cord injuries, and traumatic brain injuries, they see this program as much more than a sport. The Wolfpack, and the wheelchair basketball community, have enabled its players to improve their mental health, physical health, and self-confidence by creating a peer group that focuses on what can be achieved – not what has been lost.
For Junior, it was the same. It wasn’t just a sport to keep busy or to distract himself. It was a group of individuals, warriors, and soldiers, continuously fighting and looking for something to give back to others. With the Wolfpack, Junior has not only become a coach and program director, but he serves on tournament committees, has been the commissioner for the women’s league, and helps people all over the country. But most of all, it allows Junior to share with others, to help give back–it gives Junior a reason to be here.
Because of the Wolfpack, Junior has felt a part of something. There is a special kind of bond that he has developed through this basketball program that gives him a sense of purpose. He’s been able to focus his mental energy on others, making his role with the program impactful. When Junior talks about this group of athletes, he does so with a sense of pride. Their success is his success. His success is because of this bond. Whether on the court winning games or hanging out grilling food, their humor and camaraderie remind Junior that he is here for a reason. What that reason is, he doesn’t know (or it changes), but having this brotherhood allows Junior to live one day at a time, or one hour at a time if need be.