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SAN FRANCISCO (Tribune News Service) — Nine years ago, Luis Lujan was driving his two children home from daycare in Fullerton when all of a sudden, a pickup truck carrying watermelons pulled out right in front of him. Lujan's 2001 Jeep Grand Cherokee T-boned the other car at 45 mph.

"I slammed right sideways into him," recalled Lujan, 50, a Navy veteran who lives in Fremont. "That threw me against the door jam and I hit my head."

It was a moment that would forever alter his life. For two years, doctors repeatedly said he was fine. But Lujan kept going to the emergency room because of the pain from the crash. It wasn't until he visited a veterans hospital in Palo Alto that an MRI revealed two ruptured discs and nerve impingement, injuries that stemmed from his time in the military in the early '90s.

He received compensation for the military-related injuries, but obstacles still remained for Lujan. Though he was able to get a bachelor's degree from San Jose State University through a post-9/11 GI Bill, and later a job at a security company, the gig ultimately didn't work out and that left him in a particularly difficult situation. He had to find new housing after his in-laws, who he and his family were living with at the time, decided to sell their property.

But no landlord would accept Lujan's income, which at the time amounted to just his disability payments from the military.

It left Lujan with few options. So in 2019 he decided to reach out to a San Francisco nonprofit he had heard of while at SJSU, an organization called Swords to Plowshares, which helps veterans with financial and job assistance programs, along with other services.

Established in 1974, Swords to Plowshares was started by Vietnam veterans who were returning home from war. Its name comes from a concept where potentially deadly military technology is then used for peaceful reasons, like GPS or nuclear fission.

The agency received funding this year from Share the Spirit, an annual holiday campaign that serves residents in need in the East Bay. Donations will help support 56 nonprofit agencies in Contra Costa and Alameda counties. The organization will use its grant to provide 125 veterans with backpacks full of winter supplies and toiletries.

Steven Culbertson, the associate director of programs and operations at the nonprofit since 2017, said that veterans are susceptible to homelessness, drug addiction and mental illness upon returning home. He said that Lujan's story is very similar to what many other veterans experience that come to Swords to Plowshares.

"Often military service actually causes trauma," he said. "They've gone into combat, they've seen things they wouldn't have normally seen in a normal, civilian life. Then they're released ... boom you're back. It is my opinion that the military does not do a very good job at transitioning these jobs into civilian life. Swords spends a lot of time helping people at that transition."

The nonprofit currently enrolls about 500 veterans within the Bay Area per year, said Culbertson, and helps between 150 and 250 individuals get into permanent housing.

When Lujan reached out to Culbertson's organization, it immediately got in touch with a landlord who was willing to work with the nonprofit. Lujan got his first month's rent and security deposit covered by Swords to Plowshares, an amount that he said was around $6,200, as well as 35 percent rental assistance going forward.

"It was like heaven sent," Lujan said.

Growing up, Lujan said that he didn't have much of a choice of what to do after high school, nor did he have anyone encouraging him to go to college. Both his parents passed away before he turned 18. Born in Globe, Ariz., a small town east of Phoenix, Lujan said he had three choices when he graduated: join the U.S. Navy, join a gang or end up in jail. He chose the first option since his dad served in the Navy during World War II and fought at the Battle of Okinawa.

In 1988, at 17-years-old, Lujan enlisted and was stationed in San Diego at Naval Air Station North Island. While he enjoyed some good times — he got to help with the 1990 submarine spy movie “The Hunt for Red October” starring Sean Connery — one accident would later leave him with extended health issues. In 1991, while Lujan was moving some heavy material, he heard a pop in his back.

"I went to medical," he said. "They took x-rays. They said, 'You're fine.'"

The injury would come back to haunt him 12 years later. While in Arizona during a training exercise in the Army, which he joined later, Lujan was carrying some teammates in a fireman's carry. The next day, he woke up with what felt like a "spear" had gone through his spine. And the car accident in 2012 only worsened those injuries, leaving Lujan in need of help.

In addition to rental assistance, Swords to Plowshares also helped Lujan find a job. In June 2021, Lujan started working for a branch of the state's Employment Development Department, which helps people with unemployment benefits.

The work has come full circle, because Lujan now refers clients that he comes across during his EDD job to Swords to Plowshares.

"We're partners in helping fellow veterans find employment," said Lujan, who now lives with his wife and three children in Fremont. "It's a really good feeling now that Swords and I ... we work together."

(c)2021 the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.)

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