On 9/11 I was actually in active duty in the U.S. Army already, and I was deployed in Kosovo. I was coming toward the end of my deployment over there and also at the end of my active-duty time in the Army.
When 9/11 happened, we saw it on TV. It was in Eastern Europe, so there was a big time difference. We thought it was some kind of movie someone was playing but in actuality it was real it was happening live.
Shortly thereafter we got a huge alert on base, and everybody had to put on all their gear and stand guard and make sure that vehicles and things were not parked close to the mess hall. We just had to be on high alert, and we weren't sure what to do. We weren't sure who had attacked us. We kind of suspected it was probably a terrorist -- someone from the Middle East -- and we came to find out later it was Osama bin Laden.
It was kind of shocking and kind of intense, too, at the same time because we were already overseas, so we didn't think we were going to go home. We thought we were going to go somewhere else.
I enlisted on Jan. 7, 1997. I was about three months away from the end of my contract. My unit stayed back in Kosovo, and they sent me back to Ft. Bragg, N.C., to out-process. During that time I started thinking about what might happen, and during that time we were following the news and we found out it was Osama bin Laden and Al Qaida. That did it. In my mind I decided, "You know what? I've deployed a couple of times already, but I haven't been to a combat zone, so I'm going to go ahead and re-enlist in the California National Guard."
What that did basically is that ended my active duty with the Army, but then I would go report to a part time National Guard unit here in California, where I can try to get a job a normal job and go to school and then be on call wherever they needed me.
They did actually call my unit, and I ended up going to Iraq from 2003 to 2004.
My background in the military is military police. We did a lot of law-enforcement missions. I was tasked to train Iraqis. We set up a mock police academy in Karbala, where we trained these police officers in how to do basic law enforcement techniques. We did that for about six months and during the time when I would end my day training those guys we would also do night missions and cruise around the town. We set up checkpoints. Sometimes, we'd go house to house and do raids, and towards the last six months our unit got called to transfer from Karbala to Abu Ghraib, where we guarded prisoners.
When I came back I happened to get a job with the TSA -- the Transportation Safety Administration -- and that was when they first became federalized when the Department of Homeland Security was formed. I was one of the first screeners to be hired in the nation, and when I was doing that for a few months, I got called back into active duty.
They held my job, so when I came back from Iraq I held onto my job and I worked there again. I went back to school, and eventually I graduated with my degree.
While that was happening, I was going to volunteer for the VA at our local VA center in San Jose. That led to a job with the VA (in Palo Alto). Now I manage the talent-management system. It's like a training and education database that the VA uses nationwide -- it's an online learning platform.
When I first joined the military I wanted to follow my dad's footsteps. He served 28 years in the Navy as an officer, and I was used to moving around a lot. When you're 17 or 18 years old, you don't really know what you're going to do. I thought in my head I was going to be an FBI agent down the road.
... When you're in active duty you're constantly training for the worst-case scenario, which is going to war. When 9/11 happened, that's when we were going to put the practice into real life. When we went to Iraq, it was just a totally different ball game. Everything we trained for was second nature to us. There was "muscle memory," we call it.
It was kind of cool because we were helping people at the same time and the stuff that we trained for was actually working. It's just giving me chills right now thinking about it.
When I came back home we flew into Oakland International Airport. While I was waiting for my parents on the curbside I felt a tug on my uniform and when I looked down, there was a little girl.
She said, "Thank you for serving our country," and I almost cried right there because it was like the ending of a movie. It made me feel it was worth it right there. That just did it right there. It was a perfect ending to a movie -- my movie -- from my military service.
I know one thing coming back home from Iraq: I know I haven't been the same person. I've had a lot of bumps and bruises along the road. I thank God for the VA and for my family and friends to be there for me.
The VA has given me a chance to have a career. They give me a chance to go to school and help me to pay for it and they helped me to purchase a home. Not only that, but also the counseling I get. I'm service-connected for PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), and it's whenever someone goes though an abnormal experience. It's kind of hard to get through some days because you have memories that come into your mind every now and then. You've got to figure a way out to cope with it and talk to people about it to ease through and get through life day by day. So that's impacted me, and I still see a therapist.
We are now out of Iraq. We still have some troops there to stabilize the area just like we did in Korea and Germany. I think we need that there because we don't want all of the work that we did -- that I did -- to just go up in smoke.
The world has changed, but I think a lot of people Americans and civilized countries were very complacent, and I think we're a very reactive country. Yes, we did set up the Department of Homeland Security, and we have all sorts of different programs in place. Just going down the highways as a regular civilian, I see a lot of vulnerable areas. (But) we have a strong intelligence community.
-- Romeo H.
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