At the age of 19, Raymundo Perez decided to enlist in the United States Armed Forces to leave behind a troubled life in Los Angeles, California. Gangs, drugs and alcohol brought him down.
His service in the US Army began in 1998. It was meant to be an escape valve through which he could start a new path and where he would find a positive meaning in life.
His experience, however, would turn into a vicious cycle of battling depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, something very common among veterans.
Now, at the age of 43, and after years of battling those vices that landed him in prison, Perez now devotes his efforts to supporting those veterans who, like him, can’t seem to find an escape.
In August, Perez will be nine years sober with no alcohol or drugs. Getting to this point, however, was a battle in itself.
Losing it all leads to big changes
In 2001, after serving the country for 15 months, Perez moved to Surprise, where he planned to calmly return to everyday life. He soon found himself dealing with drugs and alcohol.
“During the army, I did not fight on the battlefields. My duty was at the post office, a relatively quiet activity, so I never thought I would be diagnosed with PTSD, but I suffered from it,” Perez told The Arizona Republic.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is triggered by a traumatic event, whether you experienced it or witnessed it. Symptoms can include flashbacks, nightmares and severe distress, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Although Perez was not in combat, during his time in the military he lost friends who were. These thoughts, he said, would torment him and lead him to drug addiction.
“I never wanted to say anything. I just drank beer so I wouldn’t think about it all the time,” Perez said.
His addiction caused him to lose everything: his home, his job and his family — he divorced his wife and lost communication with his two daughters.
It wasn’t until he landed in jail after being involved in a car accident where alcohol was a factor that he realized he had hit rock bottom. Since then, he said “no more”.
He shunned vices and dedicated himself to investing in himself, he said.
“It wasn’t easy, but step by step I was getting there. It was the best decision I’ve ever made in my life,” he said.
Supporting veterans, his life’s work
The positive turn he gave to his life allowed him to recover much of what he lost.
His career is now centered around supporting veterans, he has a place to live again, and he’s been able to rekindle his relationship with his daughters, ages 14 and 18, the latter a social work student at Arizona State University.
“My eldest daughter must have seen me in a bad state. She suffered a lot, and it was for both of them that I decided to change my life to give them a good example, and never live like me,” said said Perez. .
He now works as a peer specialist in the VA Office of Veterans Justice Programs at Phoenix Medical Center.
As part of his responsibilities, Perez visits courthouses, jails and jails across the state to help incarcerated veterans with the health care, support services and disability benefits they need. need.
“When I go to prison to help those who are serving their sentence, I see friends who I was on the streets with or who were my cellmates,” Perez said. “They see that if I could go ahead, so can they.”
During Second Chance Month celebrated in April, the Biden administration announced the expansion of second chance programs available to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals as they reintegrate into society.
Nationwide programs are tasked with focusing on expanding investments in job training and rehabilitation, expanding access to health care and housing, and amplifying educational opportunities. , among other areas.
Perez is one of many actors who help provide these opportunities for people currently in prison and formerly incarcerated in Arizona.
Alongside his work, Perez founded Operation Restoration Veterans Hope, a Phoenix-based nonprofit that since 2018 has been supporting veterans coming out of prison and off the streets through a number of rehabilitation programs.
According to the official website, the organization serves veterans “struggling with substance abuse, PTSD, suicidal ideation, and those coming out of prison, jail, and rehabilitation programs — at no cost to them.”
“The resources are there, but at the end of the day, the most important thing is that you want to change your life,” Perez said. “It happened to me. I refused to change and it wasn’t until I lost everything that I decided to change – something that could have happened long before.”
Turn anxiety into pride
If there’s one person who has witnessed Perez’s change, it’s his mother, Maria Bonilla.
She said that deep down, her son has always upheld the values that were instilled in him as a child, that he always wanted to move forward, but circumstances took him down the wrong path.
“I lived with him for a year when his wife left him. It was very heartbreaking to see how he destroyed his life, to see him lying there, drinking… he wasn’t letting himself be helped “, she said.
According to Bonilla, the drugs were killing him, “but while he was in prison he recognized that there was a good life and he told me ‘when I get out of here, I will make this positive change’. and he fulfilled all of his that in an incredible way,” she said.
To see him now a changed man is a matter of pride for Bonilla, as a respectable man admired by others, reaching out to veterans who, like him, suffer from the scars of war.
“(The change) was an incredible thing. … The only thing that matters to him is helping people. He opened his non-profit organization to help others,” Bonilla said. “Before, on Sundays, I saw him drink. Now he’s at the park helping the homeless.”
If you are a veteran and have PTSD or know someone who has it, go to this Department of Veterans Affairs website, https://www.va.gov/directory/guide/state_ptsd.cfm?STATE =AZ, where you will find information about available resources.
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