When Abel Moreno returned home to Tucson after serving in the U.S. Army for seven years—including duty in Iraq and Afghanistan—he figured he'd get a job and move on with his life.
But that didn't happen. Not only did he have difficulty finding a job; he also had a difficult time "fitting back in."
"I could feel this wave of anxiety. I don't know how or where it came from, but the only choice I had was doing odd jobs for awhile, cleaning people's yards and doing landscaping. I even tried to do cable with Dish Network at one point, but I could not fit," Moreno said.
Today, Moreno is having an easier time fitting in. Sitting in a UA-area coffeehouse and carrying a blue backpack, the former solider looks like any other student, with his notebooks and coffee. He's going to school at Pima Community College to become a social worker. It feels good to fit in, he said, but it's taken a lot of effort.
One thing that helped Moreno feel better is Vets4Vets, a support program for veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq that uses peer-to-peer counseling. Moreno also started working for several social-service agencies that reach out to the homeless, and do street outreach to intravenous drug users.
It was during one of these jobs, in 2006, that Moreno met a Vietnam veteran who helped the younger veteran realize that he still needed to deal with the baggage from combat.
"I happened to be wearing my 82nd Airborne Division belt buckle, and this guy was wearing his old 101st Airborne Division Army jacket. There's a rivalry between the two," Moreno said. "He asked me, 'Were you over there? Which one?'"
Moreno answered both—Iraq and Afghanistan—and then looked at the older veteran and asked, "Does it ever go away?"
"He looked at me and said, 'No,'" and then offered Moreno advice that he said he needed to hear. "'I left Vietnam in 1971, and I've been there every single day. Why do you think I live in the park? I'm an alcoholic. I lost my kids, and I lost my wife. If you don't handle it now, you won't handle it.'"
A couple of weeks later, Moreno found out about Vets4Vets. One year after that, Moreno was hired as the organization's community-outreach and media coordinator, and about two months ago, he succeeded Vets4Vets founder James W. Driscoll as the executive director. Driscoll, a former Vietnam vet who served in the Marine Corps, founded the organization in 2005 using the peer-to-peer counseling method he developed.
Moreno said discovering Vets4Vets was important to him, because when he first got out of the military in 2005, there weren't many support services offered, and if they existed through Veterans Affairs, they were difficult to access unless the vet was in desperate circumstances.
"It was kind of like a dot on the radar screen," he said about the state of veterans' support services in 2005. "From my point of view, people kind of thought, 'Well, it's not that bad, (as it was for Vietnam vets),'" Moreno said.
"I can honestly say ... the men I served with, no one came back correct," he said. "The alternative was to try to make your life the best you can, or live in the haze of what's gone on, or carry on your mission and stay in the service."
Beyond the anxiety Moreno felt while transitioning from combat to civilian life, he had difficulty sleeping. "I know ... if I am not touching my wife, that I could potentially in my mind wake up somewhere else. I knew that, for some reason, I would be driving down the road, and I'd breakdown emotionally and have to pull over and then conceal that. I didn't want anyone to know what I was going through. But at the same time, I knew that I couldn't go on living like that. I knew that looking into my wife's eyes, she was looking for the person she married, and he wasn't there. My mother would ask me, 'Where did my boy go?'"
Moreno said he explains the range of emotions that a returning soldier goes through by discussing the people he served with. "I was surrounded by a group of great men when I was in the Army, and now I'm lucky that if I'm in a coffee shop, someone even talks to me. If I do talk, I'm the oldest young guy in your world, because I've done these things, seen these things, and I can't relate to anyone—except other veterans."
While working on the streets for social-work agencies, he discovered something that he didn't realize he had in him: heartfelt compassion.
"It's the biggest miracle I am at today, being able to be a social worker, being able to help the homeless, being able to do needle exchanges. I began to feel that life was not a problem, but a solution," Moreno said.
When Moreno participates in Vets4Vets peer support groups today, and a veteran is feeling guilty about the fellow soldiers left behind, Moreno said he tells the soldier he really likes tea with sugar, and "just because you can drink tea without sugar and tolerate the taste, that doesn't mean you have to."
"Our program is designed to open doors and confronts emotional obstacles in a safe and nonjudgmental environment. You can go to other groups—and I've been to quite a few. But usually, those therapy sessions only scratch the surface and beat around the bush, and eventually, a solider leaves thinking, 'I'm good to go here,' but they aren't," Moreno said.
The group sessions are free of charge.
"I know how to be sad, but I want to live life. I earned that when I put on that uniform and the medals I received. I want to experience life for the way it is meant to be. I served, and now all I am asking for is a normal life. That's what returning veterans want," Moreno said.