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Veteran turns rough road in life into comedy

TAMPA -- There was a time when Victor Vega considered suicide.

That's how bad it had gotten for a man who once commanded a six-figure salary at a managed health care company. Jobless for two years and on the verge homelessness, Vega couldn't see a way out.

"Things had gotten so bad, I seriously considered stepping over the line," Vega said.

Instead, he had his then-wife drive him to a hospital emergency room, where Vega voluntarily committed himself under the Baker Act. He stayed for two weeks.

That was two years ago, and things are looking a little brighter for the 49-year-old Brooklyn native. Vega works as a clerk at the James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital in Tampa while seeking a position where he can use his experience in health care economics. More importantly, Vega recently left his temporary home at the Salvation Army and has moved into an apartment he got through a federal grant from the Rapid Re-Housing Program.

Vega, a big, jolly man who laughs enthusiastically at his own jokes, has used humor to deal with his misfortunes, many of which he admits were self-inflicted. He is an amateur comedian who has performed his standup routines at four open mike nights, most recently at Side Splitters Comedy Club on Dale Mabry Highway Boulevard on Sunday night.

"I'd always been a class clown, since probably elementary school," Vega said. "One of the ways I deal with angst is with humor. If I don't laugh, I'll start crying."

***

As a boy of Puerto Rican heritage growing up in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, Vega showed promise at an early age. He graduated in 1982 from the highly regarded Brooklyn Technical High School, which specializes in math, science and engineering.

Vega earned a scholarship to Columbia University, but dropped out after three years of "drinking beer and chasing girls." It was the first of a series of missteps that checkered an otherwise promising life.

After Columbia, Vega joined the Navy, where he trained as a medical corpsman while stationed in San Diego. He also earned a license as a practical nurse and worked his way through college earning a bachelor's degree.

Daniel McGillis, who served with Vega on the guided-missile cruiser William H. Stanley, recalled his friend's sense of humor and skill as a role player in the Dungeons and Dragons game.

McGillis recalled a shore leave in the Philippines when he got falling-down drunk. Vega practically carried his friend back to the ship. As they were heading up to the quarter deck, they encountered an officer who knew Vega was a corpsman.

"Is he all right?" the officer asked, concerned about McGillis' stupor.

"Oh, he's just a little tired," Vega replied. "I'm going to take him to his bunk so he can get some sleep."

Vega spent 10 years in the Navy and loved most of it. On a ship with 400 sailors but no doctor, a corpsman can be the difference between life and death.

He recalled a shipmate known as the "sick bay commando" because he continually reported to sick bay when he was supposed to stand watch. One day, the commando showed up in sick bay, but this time he really looked ill to Vega's trained eye.

"Because I saw him so frequently, I saw something different about the way he looked," Vega recalled.

Vega reported to his chief petty officer that the commando looked ill.

"Get him out of here," the chief yelled.

Vega was insistent. "Chief, give me five minutes in the exam room."

The corpsman deduced that the commando was suffering appendicitis. He called the VA hospital and scheduled surgery that saved the man's life. His actions also saved his chief's job.

"It was always important to me that I take care of the guys on the ship," Vega said. "I was a corpsman, and I was all they got."

***

With a bachelor's degree from National University in San Diego, Vega said he hoped to become an officer and make a career in the Navy. But he was transferred to another ship and a new boss. They didn't get along.

After what Vega called a "miserable two-and-a-half years" on the ship, he was accepted at the University of Florida school of business administration. Vega had a wife and child, so he worked part-time jobs while attending the school, including as a licensed practical nurse at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Gainesville.

Because of his medical background, Vega enrolled in the business school's dual degree program, seeking master's degrees in business administration and health care administration. The work was grueling.

"It was hard, really hard," Vega said. "There's so much information and there's so much to learn. On top of that I was doing two degrees and everybody else was doing one."

After graduation and a six-month residency, Vega took a job in New York with a medical device company. He was in the job just three months before the stock market crashed in 2000. The medical device company took a beating and Vega was laid off. It took nine months to find another job.

"I thought that was hell," he said. "I'd been working since I was 16."

Vega finally landed a job with AmeriChoice, a managed care company that handled roughly 500,000 Medicare and Medicaid patients in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The company later was sold to the larger UnitedHealth Group, growing to 1.2 million members in 10 states.

Vega was part of the corporate medical economics team that analyzed medical claims and patient outcomes. He said his health care background made it easy to talk with doctors and nurse case managers.

"I tell people it was the best job in health care," he said. "My job was to figure out if we were keeping our people healthy, and if we weren't to try to help our clinicians understand what they need to do about it."

***

But after eight years of promotions and raises with AmeriChoice, Vega's ambition clouded his judgment. He applied for a job as finance director in another company under the UnitedHealth Group umbrella, located in Oldsmar. It was a job he admits did not sync well with his skills and experience.

He even tried to explain during the job interview that his expertise was not in finance. The company hired him anyway.

"I said I do analysis on data; I'm not really a finance person," Vega recalled. "Soon as I took the job it was a pure director of finance position. I was treading water."

Later, the company reorganized and brought in a real finance director. In the summer of 2009, Vega was fired.

Along the way, he stumbled through three failed marriages. His first, to a childhood sweetheart, ended about the time he was graduating from business school.

"We married for all the wrong reasons," he said.

When he moved to New York, Vega met a woman who was a Christian minister.

"I thought it was the perfect relationship," Vega said. "It was awful."

He met his third wife over the Internet, and they married in less than a year. Vega was her sixth husband.

***

After he lost his job as finance director and he split with his third wife, Vega was mostly unemployed for three years. His last regular job was at a health care company in St. Petersburg. He was fired in February after just 90 days on the job.

Vega's money slowly dwindled and his car died. With nowhere else to go, he found out about a program called Patriots' Harbor, which gets hotels to rent rooms to veterans for $38 a night. Mike McGinnis, a Marine Corps veteran, founded the program with retired Army Lt. Col. Mac McLaughlin.

McGinnis said they were able to house Vega for the first five months of 2013. After Vega lost his job in St. Petersburg and his money ran out, McGinnis covered his rent for the last six or seven weeks.

The Marine vet thought that was money he'd never see again. Then one day Vega called to say he was coming by to give McGinnis some of the overdue rent.

"He gave me around $600 or $700, and that was a lot of his money," McGinnis said. "The fact he gave it to me says a lot about him."

With the help of the VA, Vega found a room at New Beginnings, a nonprofit that manages transitional housing for the homeless. Vega was kicked out, however, when he couldn't pay his first month's rent.

Vega then moved to the Salvation Army shelter, which he jokingly calls "Sal's Bed and Breakfast." After a short period in the "general population," Vega said he got a second floor "penthouse suite."

Throughout his downward spiral, Vega said he found humor therapeutic. And being homeless gave him a wealth of material for his stand-up routine. Examples:

"I'm not homeless, I'm home-challenged," he joked. "Or to use employment terminology, I'm currently between homes."

With a regular roof over his head, a steady-though-low-paying job and a new group of friends at the VA hospital, Vega said he thinks his life is turning around. Meanwhile, he plans to keep the jokes coming and take the laughs where he can find them.

"Everybody I interact with, I try to laugh about it," he said. "I have to, because I'm not going to lose my sanity over this."

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