SAN ANGELO, Texas — For years Juan Rubio has served his nation’s defenders — first treating their combat wounds and now treating emotional ones.
“I really love taking care of people,” he said. “It was my calling. That was my passion.”
Before enlisting in the Navy in 1999, the San Angelo native worked as a trauma technician at Hendrick Health System in Abilene with aspirations of becoming a registered nurse. He saw the GI Bill as a way to pay for schooling he couldn’t afford otherwise, and he chose the Navy because of its well-regarded medical program.
“I learned at a very young age to put other people’s needs in front of mine,” he said. “To this day I still do that.”On 9/11, Rubio was stationed in Bethesda, Md. His critical team was deployed to the Pentagon, arriving several hours after the plane hit the building.
“There was a lot of smoke,” he said. “I remember the exhaust fumes from the plane. Watching helicopters medevacing injured personnel and the ambulances being around, cops securing the area.”
He and other medics organized a triage, giving aid to Pentagon workers and water to firefighters. They were kept busy until about 2 a.m. Sept. 12.
“When we first got there it was a little chaotic,” he said. “After four hours everything started settling down.”
Before 9/11 his ambition was to be stationed on an aircraft carrier, but afterward he knew the U.S. would go to war, and he wanted to be part of the effort. He decided to join a Marine unit as a corpsman, or medic.
His tours taught him a stronger sense of integrity and honesty, and he formed an unbreakable bond with his fellow Marines.
“You have to learn to give your life up for another person,” Rubio said, “willing to go through the streets of hell and back for your fellow Marine. And I can say I’ve done that several times.”
His war memories include firefights and other combat, but one mass casualty event in 2003 sticks out in his mind.
When they were first pushed into Iraq, his company got trapped in Nasiriyah, where dozens of service members were injured or killed.
He and three other corpsman retrieved Marines still trapped inside amphibious assault vehicles — fighting through the city for several hours.
On New Year’s Day 2005 he saved four Marines by carrying them out of a firefight near the Euphrates River and giving aid while he and they were injured by an IED. Shrapnel peppered his right arm, the back of his head and both legs, some of which is still there.
Over his career he earned two Purple Hearts and a Silver Star, the third-highest military medal. He was medically retired in October 2009.
He said enlisting remains the best decision he has ever made, but he suggests that people thinking of enlisting “learn everything they possibly can before signing that dotted line.” Recruiters might not mention things unless they’re brought up.
“An honest question deserves an honest answer, and they will be honest with you if you can ask an honest question,” he said.
His wife, Jennifer, understands more than most wives where her husband is coming from because she also was a Navy corpsman.
“I didn’t serve in any combat situations like he did, but I think having military experience helps,” she said.
Juan Rubio’s military experience shapes how his family spends its time — they enjoy camping, fishing and watching movies at home. Now back in San Angelo, they time public outings to avoid large crowds, which can aggravate Rubio’s post-traumatic stress disorder. He was also diagnosed with traumatic brain injury and has memory problems.
Trips to the mall or grocery store are scheduled when stores first open or later in the day, Jennifer Rubio said, and war movies are also hit-or-miss.
One thing Juan Rubio loves is getting involved with the city’s veteran organizations.
He helps service members transition to civilian life, sometimes dropping everything to meet, have lunch and talk for a few hours.
He helps put together trailers for veterans parades and serves as a VFW trustee and as vice chairman for the All Veterans Council of Tom Green County.
“If anybody calls him to help out or do anything, he’s always going to do so,” Jennifer Rubio said. “Sometimes I think he often takes on too much responsibility, but he likes to do as much as he can.”
Wayne Landis, with the Order of the Purple Heart, met Rubio several years ago when Rubio was the Veterans Day parade marshal. Rubio had just moved back to San Angelo from Corpus Christi.
“He’s a great guy,” Landis said. “Just his military service is amazing.”
Landis said Rubio is doing a “phenomenal job” fundraising for the order, which supports all veterans.
Two major events he has spearheaded include a charity golf tournament in June and, currently, an annual raffle.
Members of the Order of the Purple Heart help veterans pay utility bills, give them rides and even have robes or sweatshirts that they deliver to vets around the holidays. They also visit with veterans in nursing homes and the Big Spring Veterans Affairs hospital.