My Veteran Journey: From Island to Desert to a New Home
By Roberto Cruz, U.S. Army (Ret.)
I live and raise my daughters in a safe Florida neighborhood. I can walk down the street and enjoy the sunshine. But there was a time when I didn’t think I could do any of these things. I didn’t think I’d live — and if I survived, I didn’t expect to be able to walk and move on my own. This is my veteran journey.
My dad was always my hero. He volunteered to serve in the U.S. Army during Vietnam. He was keenly aware of the challenges veterans face when they return from war. He wanted me to avoid those struggles and recommended I stay in school.
However, with only one year left, I quit college and enlisted in the U.S. Army from Puerto Rico at 21 years old. The week before I signed on in 2003, the Iraq war was just beginning. By 2005, my boots hit the ground in Iraq.
I had been in Iraq for eight months when my injury happened. It was Aug. 14, 2005, a Sunday afternoon. I was guarding a tower in a base destined to be given back to the Iraqi army. We’d heard snipers were moving into the area, so we were scanning for gunfire.
My gunner was close to me and he turned to call my name. The next thing I knew, I was on the ground. I was in shock and didn’t know why I was down. I couldn’t move. My squad leader said everything was OK, so I didn’t know why I couldn’t move my body. Then my squad leader saw blood coming from my left arm.
A sniper bullet had hit me, and the bullet was probably still in my body. I asked to be lifted so I could see my legs because I couldn’t feel my lower body, and I was desperate to understand what was happening.
My squad leader put ice to my lips because I was thirsty, and he called for a medevac. I knew they only call for a medical evacuation when someone is close to dying, so I braced for the worst. I remember my friends crying.
In the blink of an eye, I was carried off the field.
Learning to Walk and Use My Right Hand
The medics stabilized me in Iraq and immediately sent me to Landstuhl, Germany, for surgeries to remove the bullet from my spine and save my left arm, where the bullet entered. Then I was sent to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland, where my parents joined me from Puerto Rico.
When I regained consciousness and saw my parents at my bedside, I spoke to them as if I were still in Iraq. I didn’t know what happened since the injury. I warned my mom not to stand near the door, within reach of gunfire. They patiently explained what had transpired, and they never left my side.
At one point, doctors almost amputated my left arm, but they saved it by grafting a vein from my leg. My inflammation was so bad that the arm wound didn’t close properly, and I had skin grafts from my chest all the way down my arm. It was hard to comprehend how a single bullet could do so much damage.
I spent the next two years in a hospital, alternating between surgeries and physical therapy. Doctors told me it was unlikely I would ever walk again, but I put all my effort into regaining mobility. If they asked me to take five steps, I took 10.
Because I was left-handed, one of my concerns during my stay at Walter Reed was learning to use my right hand. To improve dexterity, I asked my parents to bring me coloring books and crayons. Slowly, I trained myself to use my right hand for precise things like writing and eating with utensils. Today, I can write as well as I did with my left hand, and my handwriting even looks similar.
My recovery leaped forward when I was transferred to James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa, Florida, a VA facility with a spinal cord injury program. I had physical therapy all day, and a bilingual therapist helped communicate goals to my mom.
It wasn’t easy, but I came a long way from the dread of the first time I realized my immobility. I took new steps each day.
My family has been a source of strength during my recovery, and my bond with my dad became even stronger. Growing up, I always tried to emulate him. I played the saxophone because he played, and I joined the Army because I wanted to live by his example. I lost my best friend when he died two years ago. These days, I cherish time with my mom and my siblings when we’re able to get together.
After years of physical therapy, I’m now able to walk, run, ride a bicycle, and enjoy time with my daughters. I learned to do everything with my right hand, and I haven’t missed out on playing with my daughters and holding on to the backs of their bicycles as they learn to ride.
None of this would have been possible without organizations that support veterans.
When I found Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP), new possibilities opened up for me. I’ve pedaled for miles with other veterans who understand what I went through. I have made connections with other veterans, and I know I’m not alone.
Now I look forward to getting together with other veterans, doing work in the community, and raising awareness about veterans’ needs.
I also joined a local chapter of The Order of the Purple Heart and participate in community service projects.
I’m one of the lucky ones who can give back. Like the WWP logo exemplifies, I can be the soldier carrying and helping others, the way others helped me when I was in the hospital.
My parents gave me a good example to follow. Seeing my daughters now is a blessing. They’re my reason for getting up in the morning and wanting to continue serving wherever I’m given the opportunity.
Life can change in the blink of an eye. As a veteran, I try to think about that and be thankful for what I have. I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to serve while on active duty — and then continue to serve as a civilian.
Roberto Cruz medically retired from the U.S. Army and volunteers his time as a trustee of The Order of the Purple Heart. He stays connected to other veterans through Wounded Warrior Project.