SAN JOSE, Calif. — Rick Peralta had it all mapped out. He joined the Marines not only to serve his country, but also with the plan of coming home with the experience that would help him become a police officer.
More than two decades later, he'll tell you that it has taken a bit longer than expected to achieve his goals. Three days a week, he's at the Services for Brain Injury rehabilitation center in San Jose — striving to reclaim a little more use of his body and mind.
"I know I'm not the same," said Peralta, speaking slowly. "But I've come a long ways."
Peralta, 47, suffered a traumatic brain injury while stationed in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. He wasn't supposed to survive, but Peralta proved doctors wrong. And while his life inexorably was altered, what hasn't changed is his optimistic nature and determination to do something productive.
"I still want to serve," he said, smiling broadly beneath his Marines cap.
It would be a mistake, his sister said, to doubt Peralta's ability to find some way to do that.
"He's just a great guy who has made it through so much," said Tammy Peralta, 45. "Every day he's fighting to make a few steps forward in life. He just has this strength. His motto is 'never give up.' "
A Sunnyvale native, Peralta was an athlete who played first base in baseball as well as linebacker and center on the football team at Wilcox High. He also had the kind of outgoing personality that others naturally gravitated toward.
"He was Mr. Approachable in high school," his sister said. "He was everybody's friend. If you ask about any high school parties, they always were at Rick Peralta's house."
After graduating in 1984, he studied police science at De Anza College and was a security guard. He enlisted in the Marines in 1989 and two years later was in the Middle East during the first Iraq war. Lance Cpl. Peralta had just finished transporting a prisoner when his Humvee collided head-on with a water truck in a terrible accident. His head struck the windshield.
Initially, the family was told not to come to the military hospital in Germany where Peralta was being treated because there was no hope.
"They told us he wouldn't make it through the next 48 hours," said Tammy Peralta, describing how they went anyway. " I said: 'You don't know how tough my brother is.' "
He would be in a coma for five months and awaken into a much different life. The catastrophic brain injury left him with muscle weakness throughout his right side, forcing him to use a wheelchair. He would need to relearn how to speak, and even then it was barely above a whisper. He also was legally blind and grappled with short-term memory issues.
Peralta still is trying to overcome the effects of the accident. But he meets each day with an impossibly upbeat attitude.
At the Services for Brain Injury, a comprehensive rehab facility where he has been attending a day program for five years, Peralta works tirelessly on physical and speech therapy. He practices the Japanese martial art of Kenpo — improving his range of motion, posture and confidence.
Recently he showed off his progress by traversing a short distance with a walker and doing squat exercises under the watchful eye of Carmela Corpuz, the adult day program manager.
"Rick's my recruit," Corpuz said during a break.
"Ooh-rah," he responded, using the Marines rallying cry.
Corpuz added that Peralta, who lives in a group home in Cupertino, never stops pushing himself.
"Rick is very motivated," she said. "Whenever we're doing his physical therapy, his words are: 'No pain, no gain.' "
Peralta still has his goals, and the not-for-profit Services for Brain Injury wants to help him. The program helps people reach their maximum level of independence possible. One of the ways is through vocational training. In 2011, Services for Brain Injury helped 31 clients return to the workforce and the center expects to meet that total this year, as well.
Rick and five other members of the day program would like to participate in the state-funded vocational training that would teach them job skills. But they all will need individualized training to gain the skills necessary to enter that program, and there is no insurance coverage available. So right now, they're caught in limbo.
"When people with brain injuries wake up, they want to do the same exact things they wanted to do before," said Carol Welsh, manager of Services for Brain Injury's community and integration program development. "We help them get as far back as they can and try to shape their abilities in the most realistic way possible. We know Rick can continue to serve in some meaningful way, even if it might not be the way he had intended."
For instance, Welsh thinks Peralta might be able to volunteer for a police force — perhaps in an informational role directing people to the correct departments.
"But we won't know that until he's been trained and we can see what he can do," Welsh added.
Donations of $50 or more by readers can help Rick and the others in the day program receive that prevocational training.
"Having a job would be great for his self-esteem," Tammy Peralta said. "It would be amazing if he could do that."
At Services for Brain Injury, "amazing" is a word used to describe Peralta's perseverance. But he has a simple explanation for that attitude.
"Once a Marine," Peralta said, "always a Marine."