Veterans find their niche — and run with it
By Gregg Zoroya | USA Today | Published: June 2, 2014
A soldier, a sailor and a Marine.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan might have left Rachel Gutierrez, Joe Femenia and Mervin Roxas embittered or even suicidal as they have countless other veterans.
The wars could have killed them: Gutierrez, an Army sergeant, was nearly shot by one of her own soldiers in Baghdad; Femenia, a Navy SEAL, went on missions in both wars; Roxas, a lance corporal, was caught in a roadside bomb blast on the Iraqi border with Syria.
They instead embody narratives that are seldom discussed. Each — like many of the 2.6 million who served in the wars — did not wind up on the deficit side of war's ledger.
Rather, they reinvented themselves. They built on their warrior foundation even as they left it behind.
They entered a postwar phase of life and say they are thriving: The former GI runs a consulting firm and organizing community service; the ex-Navy SEAL has a lead position on Wall Street; and the Marine veteran is rising in the ranks of the Easter Seals organization.
Far from the scandal over delays at the Department of Veterans Affairs in treating thousands of former servicemembers, Gutierrez, Femenia and Roxas live life on their own terms.
"We are portrayed as this damaged generation of veterans," says Gutierrez, 32, who lives near Phoenix. "We're not liabilities to this nation. We're assets."
Here are three stories you might otherwise never hear:
'A passion for helping others'
Gutierrez emerged from the growing cauldron of Iraq violence in 2005 to become a businesswoman, leaving the Army to form a corporation with her husband, Edward.
She was all of 23. But Gutierrez had gained a year of experience in a very dangerous place as a non-commissioned officer and human resources specialist assisting in disseminating identification badges for U.S. military personnel and defense contractors.
Growing up in a Detroit suburb, she had enlisted in the Army at 17 as much to flee a decrepit, drug-ridden neighborhood as to find a new future. "I wanted to get out," Gutierrez says.
Gutierrez went to war in 2004, leaving in her mother's care a daughter born out of wedlock. Interacting with contractors, she paid attention to the buildup of military manpower and infrastructure and grew comfortable communicating with people of different cultures, becoming adept at negotiation. "I was connected with a lot of people," she says.
There were risks, such as daily mortar attacks. During one convoy preparation, a U.S. soldier accidentally discharged a machine gun, the rounds passing close to Gutierrez. She and others were sent an e-mail — her address found on a cellphone acquired by insurgents — a video showing a captured friend, a Nepalese soldier, being executed.
When she mustered out in the fall of 2005 after five years of service and began studying interior design in college, Gutierrez and her husband went into business and contracted to, among other things, design and build a bowling alley at Camp Victory near Baghdad for U.S. troops.
Gutierrez went on to obtain her MBA. She was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and had physical ailments from her service, so she obtained a 60% disability rating from the VA.
She and her husband, parents of a boy, separated. After graduate school, she formed her own consulting firm, Version2, and took a fellowship in 2012 with a non-profit group called The Mission Continues. The Missouri-based organization offers a pathway for veterans to perform community service.
"The Mission Continues was so attractive to me because it was these veterans who found a unit again and were part of a family again. And I missed that," says Gutierrez, who lives in Phoenix with her 14-year-old daughter, Alexis La Duke, and 5-year-old son, Ace.
Under the fellowship, she helped raise $14,000 to renovate and upgrade a living facility for at-risk and homeless female veterans, bonding with several who had served in her war.
Last year, The Mission Continues named her "platoon leader" for a group of more than 100 veterans who perform community work in Phoenix. Their latest effort in March was raising $13,000 to renovate a transitional living facility for male veterans.
The work has galvanized Gutierrez, instilling a sense of purpose and easing her transition from war. She says she's intrigued with creating a non-profit business designed to serve people.
"I've always had a passion for helping others," she says, "but I didn't realize, until reflecting later, that I love it, and I need it. I need it to survive."
From battlefield to Wall Street
There were instincts, reactive skills, creative ways of thinking that Joe Femenia honed as a Navy SEAL team leader and that needed an outlet of expression in life after combat. The answer he found: Wall Street.
"It's very exciting because you're taking risks," says the 37-year-old former Navy lieutenant. "You're talking to people. You're driving change and ideas."
He is a managing director at Goldman Sachs, head of U.S. leveraged loan trading.
A native of the Bronx who grew up on the campus of New York state's Maritime College where his father was an engineering professor, Femenia found a future of service in uniform a comfortable idea for a young swimming athlete.
It was after Femenia was accepted in 1994 into the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., that he became intrigued with the SEALs, drawn to their informal command structure that encourages creative thought and a free-flowing exchange of ideas.
"I felt I was part of a really elite organization that did great things for our country," says Femenia, who joined the commandos after graduating in 1998.
He would be part of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and two combat deployments to Afghanistan, conducting reconnaissance missions behind enemy lines.
Nearing the end of a seven-year, active-duty commitment in 2005, Femenia was ready to return home, but he had a quandary: finding a career "I think will offer me a mental challenge, daily stimulation and excitement," he recalls.
Between deployments, he applied and was accepted into Columbia Business School, where a retired executive mentored him about the adrenalin-fueled world of trading over-the-counter corporate debt.
"You're taking risk. But it's an art, not a science," says Femenia, who joined Goldman Sachs as an associate after obtaining his MBA in 2007.
He found his duties as a trader at Goldman a natural fit. He might be called on to create in a single day a market for clients seeking to buy or sell corporate debt. The risk at times was using Goldman Sachs capital to buy that debt at an acceptable price while not losing money on a subsequent sale.
Transitioning from the battlefield to the fast pace of the trading floor offered personal fulfillment, says Femenia, who lives with his wife and two young sons in Connecticut.
"I'm obviously very proud of my background (as a Navy SEAL), but it's sort of something I did in the past," he says. "My benchmark now is not that I was a SEAL, it's how I perform at work and as a husband and dad."
Femenia says he wants to help his brethren make that same transition. He helped build a Goldman Sachs program that recruits, trains and employs veterans.
"These young men and women have just tremendous skill sets," Femenia says. "They're smart. They have integrity. They're risk-takers. They're disciplined. They can work as a team. Those are things that are so important to corporate America."
Still serving others
Mervin Roxas says it was only after he helped others fit into the world he found after coming home from war that he managed to fit in himself.
The Philippine native immigrated to Orange County, Calif., with his family at 13 and joined the Marines after the 9/11 terror attacks. Twice he went to war, during the Iraq invasion in 2003 and a year later serving on the border with Syria as the Iraqi insurgency intensified.
It was there on July 5, 2004, as Roxas manned a machine gun mounted on the roof of an unarmored Humvee returning to base after a patrol, that a roadside bomb exploded.
He was riding in the rear of the open-backed Humvee with six other Marines, three sitting on each side behind Roxas.
The explosion was to the left, killing all three Marines sitting behind Roxas on that side. Each was a lance corporal and 21, just like him: Michael Torres of El Paso; John Vangyzen of Bristol, Mass.; and Dallas Kerns of Mountain Grove, Mo.
The force tore at Roxas, ripping his arm off at the shoulder, shattering his jaw, punching a hole through his right cheek and leaving him momentarily unconscious.
A year would follow of convalescence and marking time until his medical discharge from the military came through. Three more years elapsed as he tried to plot a future while taking history courses at California State University-Fullerton.
His dream of becoming a police officer was gone. "I had to kind of go back to the drawing board and look at other options," says Roxas, 32.
One day, he came across a jobs booth for Easter Seals, the non-profit organization devoted to helping those with autism and other disabilities.
Roxas was intrigued. "They serve people with disabilities and get to do all these cool things with them," he says. He was hired in 2008 while still attending college and taught life and social skills to one severely disabled, non-verbal client and to another suffering from moderate autism.
Roxas worked with them for two years, helping to plan their week, guiding them through fulfilling tasks such as working at a library or helping at a homeless shelter.
Roxas says he loved it. "It was a way for me to serve again," he says.
He began seeing parallels between their experience and his own.
"A lot of people just kind of write them off as, 'Oh, they're disabled. They really can't do much.' But then when they're actually out there helping other people, it's pretty cool," he says. "It kept me from being bitter ... at the world."
Easter Seals took notice. Roxas was promoted to program assistant in charge of daily site operations. In 2012, he took over supervision of more than 60 life skills coaches.
He graduated from Cal State and got married. He and his wife, Maribeth, have a 10-month-old son, Gideon.
Roxas has been asked to assist in Easter Seals' effort to help transitioning veterans learn the lessons he's acquired.
"For someone who went in really young and basically formed who they are as men in the military fashion; and then to spend several years in that mode; and then all of a sudden, you get that discharge paper, and you're a civilian — there's really no manual for that and how to do that," he says.
A key principle is simply allowing yourself to come home, Roxas says.
"We don't have to be victims all the time," he says. "We don't have to be recipients all the time. A lot of times, we can serve other people. I made peace with the fact that most of the work that needs to be done, I had to do. ... Good stuff snowballs after that."