“Life is a teacher. It will give you the tools to solve every problem that comes up.”
When most people see a service member in a wheelchair or with a prosthetic limb, they can quickly begin to understand the sacrifices made by that service member on behalf of all Americans.
But not all sacrifices are so easily noticeable. Post-traumatic stress can be profoundly debilitating—and experts believe that as many as 20 percent of all service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are struggling with PTSD.
Sergeant Juan H. is one of them.
“I saw many firefights,” he says. “I saw some of my brothers get injured, and that will be with me forever. In total, I have lost five brothers from combat.”
A California native, Juan decided to join the Marine Corps shortly after the events of 9/11. “Before I left for boot camp the U.S. invaded Iraq,” he recalls. “That made me want to go to boot camp even more.”
Juan arrived at boot camp in May 2003 and served with the 5th Battalion, 11th Marines, Sierra Battery. He deployed twice: First to Ramadi in central Iraq from September 2004 till April 2005, and then with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit from September 2006 to April 2007. “We left on a Navy ship from San Diego, sailed to Hawaii, and from Hawaii we made stops in Singapore and India and eventually made our way to Kuwait and over to Ar Rutbah in Iraq.”
“During my first tour, my unit conducted convoy security all over the country of Iraq,” Juan recalls. “We were always on the road, and that meant that we were always getting into firefights and getting contact by IEDs. I was the diesel mechanic in the unit, so I was in charge of keeping all the vehicles up and running. My unit was part of Operation Phantom Fury in Fallujah—that’s an operation we will never forget.”
“Camp Ramadi in Iraq was famous for getting hit with mortars and rockets,” he continued. “We got used to hitting IEDs on the road all the time. The one that affected me the most was one that went off right in front of my truck, which I thought the truck in front of me had been blown to pieces. Luckily they survived and were able to keep on moving forward.”
Since returning to the States, Juan has sought treatment for his PTSD: “I have been to different types of counseling, including marriage counseling because my PTSD has affected my whole family.” He also became a member of Team Semper Fi, which champions the idea of recovery through sport and is made up of more than 826 injured service members who compete in athletic events across the country.
“I learned about the Semper Fi Fund through a friend I served with in Iraq,” Juan said. “I would see him doing many cool activities with Team Semper Fi. I asked him what I had to do to join and he showed me the process.”
“I was already a runner when I joined Team Semper Fi,” Juan continued. “The Fund has supported me in helping me with my race fees, and I’ve officially run five full marathons and three half-marathons. My personal record (PR) for the half is 1:36 and my full marathon PR is 3:35.”
“I take pride in being an athlete who runs for Team Semper Fi,” he says. “I usually am the only person I see at many of my races who runs for this team, and I am proud of that. These races keep me going.”
They also help give Juan some perspective on his military experience—and life in general.
“During my runs I usually get sentimental, because I think to myself, ‘Here I am again doing what keeps me going in life,’ ” he says. “I always think of my fallen brothers who passed away in combat and ask them to help me throughout the race. Usually through my races I have enough time to make plans, think about life and set career goals for me and my family.”
Currently, those goals include advancing beyond his Bachelor’s of Science in Business Administration and completing his Master of Arts in Management. Juan also hopes, within about five years, to have run more than 30 marathons and completed his first ultra-marathon—52.4 miles.
“I want people to know that if you set your mind to something, you will reach your goal,” he says. “Life is a teacher. It will give you the tools to solve every problem that comes up. Never in a million years would I have thought about running a marathon five years ago. I was honorably discharged from the United States Marine Corps in 2007. From 2007 to 2013 I gained about 40 pounds, and in January 2013 I decided to change my life and started running.”
“The greatest hurdle I’ve had to overcome as an athlete is learning that once you are defeated mentally, you automatically are defeated physically,” he said. “Half-marathons and full marathons are not easy. The only thing that makes them easier is the understanding of the physical and mental pain that they will cause before I run them. I go into every race knowing that my body knows the pain and it will not bring me down.”