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Strength Through Community: A Warrior’s Journey to Self-Love

Warrior on Soldier Ride

The story of Army National Guard veteran Germán Rivera-Caballero takes us to the island known as La Isla Del Encanto. Puerto Rico is home for Germán, and when it came time to go to college, like many others, he enlisted in the armed forces for financial support. That decision became his greatest challenge and most fulfilling choice.

The Biggest Battle

Raised by his grandmother, Doña Fela, Germán often didn’t see his father, a member of the Army National Guard who was either working or deployed. However, one of Germán’s fondest childhood memories is when he’d go on base or to drills with his dad. So, when Germán received a recruitment letter from the Army, he signed up without permission from his father and entered the military at 17.

But one thing stood in his way – his weight. Growing up with grandma was a double-edged sword; it had its perks but also its consequences.

“I was always the big guy, the big dude,” Germán shared. “My grandma cooked delicious food, and I always had to finish, so it was double trouble. Being overweight has been a struggle my entire life and military career.”

Even though he was arguably in the best shape of his life — 5 feet 11 inches tall and weighing a lean 177 pounds —Germán couldn’t pass the running portion of his physical test. After many failed attempts, he decided to return home as a part of the Army Reserve. It wasn’t long before Germán struggled with his weight again, tipping the scale at around 230 pounds in less than three years.

Many other life factors led to his weight gain and, ultimately, his depression. During this same time, Germán was going to college, getting married, and had a beautiful baby girl on the way, all at the young age of 20. That, coupled with the beginning of the Gulf War and his father’s deployment, caused him to go into a downward spiral. So, in 1991, Germán joined the Puerto Rico Police Department and asked for a lateral transfer to the Puerto Rico Army National Guard.

“I wanted to be active to provide more income and support for my family, but I physically couldn’t do it,” Germán explained. “I know they needed me, so I put my family first and made the tough decision to take on even more jobs, knowing I was physically struggling to support myself.”

These responsibilities finally took their toll, and in 1994 Germán decided to step away from the military and quit college to focus on his family. But he wouldn’t stay away for long.

Reenlisted and Deployed

In 1999, Germán reenlisted as a food service specialist with the Army National Guard in his father’s same unit – 480th Military Police Company. Although five years passed, he still struggled to manage his weight. Germán was 28 years old, 6 feet tall, and weighed about 275 pounds – the max allowed weight for his height was around 260 pounds.

At the same time, Germán separated from his then-wife and mother of his daughter and quit his job at the police department. Life’s responsibilities still weighed on Germán physically, emotionally, and mentally. Little did he know he would soon be called upon for his first deployment.

Germán completed two tours with the military police during his time in the Army National Guard, serving in Saudi Arabia and Iraq. During his first deployment to Saudi Arabia, he could not earn his commendation medal, not for lack of effort but because he was overweight.

When Germán’s second deployment occurred, he worked hard to ensure his weight challenges would not come between him and his medals. After a mortar attack in Iraq in 2007 left him with lasting wounds, Germán received his Combat Action Badge and other recognitions. Upon returning home in 2008, Germán found life challenging because of his injuries and severe joint damage to his lower body. This inevitably led him to one of the lowest points in his life.

Isolated, alone, and dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Germán weighed the heaviest in his life – 310 pounds.

A Life-Changing Connection

Germán spent the next few years trying different things to lose weight, including Jenny Craig, intermittent fasting, and holistic healing programs. Though they all helped him maintain a healthier 285 pounds, he needed more. At this point in his life, it was less about the physical weight and more about the weight of the invisible wounds affecting his mental health.

In 2013, he retired from the military, and during a visit to the local VA office, he saw a familiar face that forever changed his life.

“I saw this guy sitting there who had served with me in Iraq,” Germán shared. “I noticed he was wearing a Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) hat, and it caught my attention. We talked about our lives since Iraq, and he asked me what I was doing now. I responded with the truth; I was doing nothing, watching the days go by, depressed, and gaining weight. I asked him the same, and the next thing I knew, he connected me with someone at the organization.”

A year later, with encouragement from fellow WWP warriors, Germán built up enough courage to attend his first event. He credits programs like Project Odyssey — a 12-week mental health program that uses adventure-based learning to help warriors manage and overcome their invisible wounds — with supporting his lifelong recovery.

“Project Odyssey takes you out of your comfort zone,” Germán explains. “Getting out of your comfort zone by choice is one of the biggest steps you need to take if you’re struggling with PTSD or other internal issues like I was. It is one of the most meaningful and powerful events a warrior can attend.”

Germán also participated in countless cycling events via Soldier Ride® and physical health and wellness expos. These programs have empowered him through shared physical activities and bonds of service in a supportive environment — ultimately helping build his self-confidence and self-worth.

Since 2014, Germán has attended almost 200 events across Puerto Rico and the U.S., and he’s nowhere near done.

In fact, he is now a WWP peer support leader in Puerto Rico and is helping others connect, heal, and find purpose again. Truly embodying the WWP logo, Germán continues to work on himself daily while supporting his community and fellow veterans. In addition, Germán is not carrying the weight of the world as much and is a light 225 pounds with a goal to reach 200 pounds by the end of 2022.

“For the first time in my life, I feel like I can be there for myself,” Germán said. “It’s called self-love, and I couldn’t have done it without the support of Wounded Warrior Project and the people in my life. Wounded Warrior Project empowers you, gives you the tools you need, and gives you the opportunity to do things you didn’t think were possible. And if a veteran has any doubt, I challenge them to challenge themselves. Go the extra mile and ask for help. We are our new mission. We have to embrace it because we deserve it; our family, friends, and country deserve it, too.”

Contact: — Krissty Andaur - Public Relations, kandaur@woundedwarriorproject.org, 904.760.6957

About Wounded Warrior Project

Since 2003, Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) has been meeting the growing needs of warriors, their families, and caregivers — helping them achieve their highest ambition. Learn more.

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