I Know Where I’ve Been, Where I Am, And Where I’m Going
Even in his early years and after four years in the Navy, AJ was a vagabond. He was born in Texas but moved from state to state while his mother looked for work. She had immigrated from Mexico as a teen and had AJ when she was just 16. His parents separated when he was a child, and they moved from town to town between California, Texas, and Wisconsin, until they finally settled just outside of Green Bay, Wisconsin, living with his aunt and uncle. “We still moved from place to place, and I didn’t stay in the same school for a whole year until the fourth grade.”
“Eventually, my mother remarried when I was around eight years old. She had my first sister the same year, a second sister when I was nine, and my brother when I was 12. We lived in a small two bedroom apartment for several years until we finally moved into a house on the other side of town. As we got older and both parents worked, I helped with my siblings after school. I wasn’t a great student and barely graduated. I was athletic in middle school competing in football and excelling in track & field, mainly hurdles. I had previously competed in regional events for hurdles. However, I was no longer able to compete in high school due to family priorities. I hung out with other guys from broken homes, and we were each other's support system growing up, I wasn’t very motivated in school.”
“I was a junior in high school when 9/11 happened. I had average grades, didn’t apply myself much, and had no plans for college. After the 9/11 events, a few friends and I watched CNN while drinking beer and cheering on the Navy ships as they launched missiles in a counter-attack. After 9/11, I knew I wanted to be a part of this and thought that with the military under my belt, I would have more options, skills, and a solid foundation. I could pay the country back for giving my mother and me a better chance at life.”
In his senior year of high school in 2003, he enlisted into the US Navy but didn’t leave for boot camp until January 2004. After graduating boot camp at Great Lakes Naval Station, he headed to Dam Neck, Virginia, for “A” School to learn his job in the Navy as an Operations Specialist where he received orders to the USS Port Royal CG 73. He deployed in 2006 to the Horn of Africa to patrol the waters for Somalian pirates as a Small Craft Attack Team 25mm gunner followed by patrolling the waters in the North Arabian Gulf for maritime security operations—escorting oil tankers through the Strait of Hormuz into international waters. He deployed again in 2007, and when his four-year contract ended, he was shipped back to home base.
“After four years on a ship, I was ready to get on with my life, I received an Honorable Discharge and was flown back to Pearl Harbor to get processed out of the Navy without any transitional help. I decided to stay in Hawaii without any real plans for my next step. I ended up couch surfing for a couple of weeks until a bedroom opened up at a friend’s place.”
AJ had worked at a car wash and construction before the Navy but had never gone on a job interview or knew how to write a resume. His first civilian job was at a high-end retail store. “I didn’t know what to expect in the interview or how to talk to people as a salesman.” He was fired after a few months and from several other jobs. “I didn’t know what to do; I couldn’t identify with anything nor find where I belonged. I went to Massage School and got my massage license and worked in that industry for a while, but once again, after some time, I began struggling with my identity.” Utilizing the GI Bill, he focused on school while still applying to jobs. “When nothing came along, I frequently began to panic, but I kept that to myself so that others wouldn’t see weakness. A friend told me about a job opening at a major technology company, and I got hired part-time. After I graduated with an Associates Degree in Marketing, I went to full time and started getting back on my feet.”
“In 2011-12 while still working at the major tech company where there were a few veterans, it was easier to blend in. I was in a serious relationship, but when that ended, I felt broken in many ways, and I knew it was time to move on to the next chapter of my life—by leaving the island. I couldn’t go back home because the family was going through their own stuff. So, I sold all of my belongings and my car and bought a one-way ticket to Los Angeles.” He was able to get a work transfer to L.A. and went back to school for an Associate Degree in Audio Engineering. “I was excelling academically and I was taking college more seriously. I wanted to work in the entertainment industry, and in 2015, I earned a BS in Entertainment Business”.
“I applied for numerous jobs across the music, sports, and video game industries, got a few small gigs here and there, but even after interning at a major music label for almost a year nothing stable came my way. My stress levels reached a breaking point, I began to hate my life, nothing was working nor progressing, I was in chronic physical pain, and it began to spread mentally and emotionally. My self-medication of alcohol worsened and increasing cocaine usage didn’t help. Losing my apartment, I moved in with a friend at her family’s house in a bedroom.” AJ was still working at the major tech company, doing an internship at the music label and commuting on the bus and the Metro two to three hours in each direction a day for four years until early 2019.
“I was struggling and crying out for help, but it felt like no one listened. In the fall of 2015, I felt there was nothing left for me and I was drinking myself to death. My drinking caused blackouts and affected my sleep patterns—my dreams became violent and nightmarish. My pain was worsening in every aspect, and everything I had tried kept failing. I went to the VA to talk to somebody, but I convinced myself that there were other veterans worse off, and I was wasting their time. Eventually one night I said ‘fuck it’ if I don’t wake up tomorrow, oh well, so I propped my pillows up to hold my head still in case if I vomited in my sleep that’d be it. I hadn’t seen my mom in six years because I felt like a failure. When she texted, I just replied with I’m fine, but I wasn’t fine.”
In the spring of 2016, when he went to NYC to visit a friend and regather his bearings, they visited the 9/11 memorial. “Seeing the destroyed fire engines and hearing a tourist ask ‘Who would run into those buildings,’ I said to myself: ‘I would have.’” He felt something move within him. When he returned to L.A., he applied to the fire department and started working out again to get back into shape. Quitting all the substance abuse was difficult at first but became easier as it went on, his drinking drastically decreased, and he no longer used cocaine. He attended LAFD workshops, seminars, and EMT school. Everyone around him noticed a drastic difference, including coworkers and friends, “I felt like I mattered again and I felt healthy.”
“In the summer of 2016, I met Denver Morris at an American Legion. After some conversation, he brought up MVP, a new idea that Jay Glazer and Nate Boyer had for combat veterans and former pro athletes. So I went the following week, even though it was only about ten people at the time, I felt at home. I adjusted my work schedule so that I could begin attending regularly and was still in the hiring process for LAFD as well as attending EMT classes, so my schedule was pretty regimented. Eventually, it came down to a point where I had to choose: I chose MVP. For over a year, Denver and I traveled all over L.A. on the bus to recruit members, do outreach, host events, and meet with potential financial partners. We had our Vegas chapter also, and Denver, Noel, Isaac and I worked with what we had to spread the message of MVP across other cities and states.”
By the fall of 2017, the program and name were growing, an Executive Director, Jacob Toups, was hired and Jay told me to put in my two weeks notice at my job because a grant had come in for me to be hired. That grantor being Mike McCarthy, former head coach of the Green Bay Packers, my hometown team. Jay recommended that I write him a thank you letter, and so I did without expectations. What I received was beyond what I imagined. When I visited home in the offseason to see my family for the first time in 6-7 years, my mother and I were invited to Lambeau Field for a full stadium tour where we got to sit and meet with Coach McCarthy so I could thank him in person as I one day had hoped to do in my letter.”
“I understood that MVP was the tribe that I had been looking for all these years. All the ‘spaghetti’ that I had thrown at the walls over the years—careers, schools, groups—hoping something would stick as a path to happiness, this finally was it. I had issues with suicidal thoughts—an attempt—and substance abuse, homelessness, and mental destruction, but being surrounded by others who had experienced the same things, I felt at peace. We were a group of misfits who had been searching for a way to self-healing and self-recognition.”
“There is no guidebook to life; I understand that now. I’m in such a better place because of MVP. My girlfriend and just had a baby boy in July; I’m close to my mother and family again. I utilize holistic healing for all my chronic physical and mental pain. But most important of all, I know where I’ve been, where I am, and where I’m going.”