DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE - CONGRESSIONALLY DIRECTED MEDICAL RESEARCH PROGRAMS
Mr. Rob Cervantes

Photos and text used with permission of
Mr. Rob Cervantes.

It is an incredible idea to expect a person to leave their home, their family, their church or temple; to sail away; to be cut off from everything and everyone they have ever known - for yet another idea: that they should give all they have and all they could be, so that others might know peace in their lifetime.

Twenty years ago, I went to Washington, D.C. as a congressional intern. While I was constantly in awe of the history of our nation surrounding me, the memorials to our nation's Fallen were, quite frankly, lost on this 19-year-old. I recall meeting Troy Aikman at the Capitol, but not so much time spent at The Wall. I remember my time going through the White House security line, but I never made it to Arlington National Cemetery. I recall my first real taste of independence, but no memory of the realization of the price paid for that Freedom.

Unlike too many 19-year olds today, I had not known war at that age. I had not yet seen flag-draped coffins coming off planes built for cargo. I had not known mothers who lost their sons so far away in the jungles of Vietnam, the unforgiving African deserts, or the harsh snows of Bavaria.

On 9/11, my wife was 8 months pregnant with our second son. I quit my job 4 days after he was born and visited my nearest Army recruiting station in Austin, Texas. I was an easy sell, I can tell you. My family and I moved to Germany and 6 months after that, I was in Baghdad, fighting with the "Gunners" of 2nd Battalion, 3rd Field Artillery, 1st BCT, 1st Armored Division. We became witnesses to the ingenuity of a budding insurgency. From the early days of paint cans filled with nails and poorly timed grenades, we encountered an invisible enemy that did not subscribe to the same Rules of Engagement or war-time conventions. We reveled in the adrenaline of close-calls and night-time raids, but only wrote home to our wives and children about looking for bad guys...and finding none.

But the bad guys eventually found us. Three days before Christmas 2003, I was lead driver in a two-vehicle reconnaissance patrol that was attacked by an improvised explosive device (IED). Though our losses that day were not our unit's first or last, they are the ones for which I feel directly responsible. I feel responsible because, when recalling memories during Cognitive Processing Therapy, a lot of details emerged that I should have been aware of as we were driving up on the IED. For instance, the business district we were driving through was deserted at 9:00 in the morning. That's the sort of sign that all good (competent) command drivers should know. My inaction caused the deaths of two Soldiers and an Iraqi National, and severely wounded two other battle buddies.

Ten years of explosive anger, detachment, and guilt have weighed on me as a result of this and other traumatic events. For the past two years, behavioral therapies have been part of my life. I've taken the medication, I've seen the waiting rooms, and I've talked it out with others who know my story as if it were their own.

In 2013 I served as a consumer reviewer for the Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury (PH/TBI) Research Program. It is my hope that, through these programs, we learn how to draw in those Veterans who feel distant and uncared for with quality treatments that speak to them. It is for these reasons that I returned to our nation's capital this past September to serve as an advocate for CDMRP, and I can tell you, it was quite a different experience from my last visit. The difference was not the surroundings, but, the fact that I had survived twice in a far-away place where too many of my brothers did not. I have seen for myself the moment heroism is born in others, and I have been touched by the grief of a hero's mother and father. These are the people I remembered in my steps this time as I walked past the Capitol building and past the White House, both seeming to have grown gray, just as I had. I visited all the war memorials and drank in all the monumental words, etched and bronzed, in the now-sacred spaces where few words are spoken. I looked about the rolling hills of Arlington, dotted with white crosses and Stars of David and saw the familiar picture of sacrifice, thousands upon thousands of times over. Every day is Memorial Day for me, and for so many other Veterans, who also measure time by the hours since their last pill or minutes until the next.

As an advocate for Veterans and a coach for the Heart of Texas Soccer Association, I regularly invite younger Veterans to join the effort as a way to combat their depression and anxiety, while keeping up their physical health. If anything, it gets them away from the video games for a little while to get fresh air and think about something other than their trauma, while giving them goals, and possibly allowing teams to form that otherwise would not have been able to find a coach.

I also established the "PFC Stuart Moore, US Army, Memorial Scholarship Fund" at the local community college to help two veterans each semester with books and supplies to keep them motivated about their education. The scholarship has just been awarded to two outstanding Veterans from the US Air Force and US Navy.

Finally, I host regular reunions for members of a former unit in which I served. It's amazing how many of my battle buddies from Iraq display symptoms of PTSD. Bringing them together has been one of the best therapies for us all. We share our war stories, our grief, and learn how one another copes. It's basically a whole weekend of Prolonged Exposure that lightens the emotional baggage we brought back with us. We also use the time to let the older Veterans mentor the younger Veterans through the VA benefits process, since so many of them simply give up seeking treatment and/or benefits, which only exacerbates their depression and anger.

From the perspective of both Veteran and advocate, the PH/TBI Research Program is an excellent venue for the advocacy community to take a leadership role in helping to provide meaningful and effective lifelong treatment options for Veterans struggling to cope with their new reality.

Last updated Wednesday, January 27, 2016