Student veterans turn to campus groups for help adjusting to college

By Dominick DiFurio

Training, reflexes and anger flowed into Devon Caballero-Zarate the day he had an altercation with his ex-wife’s boyfriend, using his tattoo-smothered forearms to twist the man’s wrist, intent on breaking it.

Fellow veteran Jordan Sherwood (right) talks with Mesa Community College student Devon Caballero-Zarate (left) about switching into a more suitable class.

Fellow veteran Jordan Sherwood (right) talks with Mesa Community College student Devon Caballero-Zarate (left) about switching into a more suitable class.

“I just reacted,” Zarate recalled, saying he also smashed the boyfriend’s head into a car windshield before the Las Vegas Police Department showed up.

Zarate was a special purpose mechanic stationed in Kadena, Japan, from 2001 until 2003 when he was discharged. His post-service disabilities stem from non-combat related incidents, particularly the murder of his father while Zarate was serving overseas.

“I snapped… plain and simple, I snapped.”

His father’s death sent Zarate into a psychological state that his superiors thought gave enough reason to send him back home permanently, Zarate said.

He now studies at Mesa Community College, hungry to have his hands on a four-year degree in the near future.

“Being a soldier, the military, that was my world… that meant everything to me,” Zarate said.

Many student veterans, like Zarate, say their military experiences leave them feeling differently than other college students, and so they turn to organizations like the Student Veterans of America to help them.

SVA is a national organization with 883 chapters across the United States. These chapters assist veterans in their transition into the college environment, some of whom suffer from post-traumatic stress and are juggling school with demanding lives. They have families and some have jobs.

Jordan Sherwood, a former member of the SVA chapter at Mesa Community College, says there’s more to life for student veterans than “going to class for the day and then going home, calling up your buddies and partying… I mean there’s always that too,” he joked.

Veterans groups on campus are a place for these students to connect with other veterans.

The Veterans Club at Arizona State University, where Zarate attended school prior to MCC, provides opportunities for members to come together through community service, social events, one-on-one guidance, and political activism.

At an October ASU Tempe Veterans Club meeting, members congregated in the evening over a couple boxes of Papa John’s pizza. Its president, Walter Tillman, runs through his agenda in front of a dozen veterans, discussing political issues, community service and social events.

As a veteran, Tillman is active in Arizona politics and encourages members of the club to reach out to elected officials and voice their opinions about student veteran issues. Recently he worked with Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat from Arizona, to push several bills that would further veterans benefits.

“It’s kind of in our best interest,” Tillman elaborated.

Joanna Sweatt is the Military Advocate at Arizona State University and is skeptical of mixing politics and veteran support. Sweatt is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and works one-on-one with veterans that need assistance at school or who simply need some company.

“Politics are stressful, no matter how much passion you have for them,” she said.

Sweatt says that she sees more successful veterans emerge from support groups that focus on service and support.

MCC also has a significant veteran population. The MCC chapter president Brian Dozier says he prefers to focus on brotherhood.

Zarate, for example, missed three days of school after his altercation in Las Vegas. He had trouble communicating his situation to teachers and was able to go to Sherwood for help. Sherwood also happens to be an employee at the Office of Veteran Services at MCC. He took Zarate under his wing, helping him communicate to teachers his struggles. He also assisted in getting Zarate into more suitable classes.

“I’ve been there,” Sherwood said of Zarate’s situation.

Sherwood also served in the military and got himself through a two-year degree. He’s now working on a Bachelor’s degree. He says he understands the complicated scenarios of fellow veterans, adding that student veterans join the club to find help with exactly these scenarios.

“We’re all fighting the battle to assimilate back into civilian life,” MCC veterans club member Ted Morrison added.

A Mesa Army veteran’s brain injury went undiagnosed for years

By David Ryan

After more than a decade of crippling headaches, alcohol and drug abuse, a psychiatric appointment unlocked a decade of mystery for Army veteran Kenny Baca.

Baca, 45, had lived for 15 years with an undiagnosed traumatic brain injury inflicted in a tractor trailer accident when he served in the U.S. Army Reserve in Arizona.

In the years after the accident in 1991, Baca spent months in jail for multiple DUIs. He couldn’t keep a job framing and painting houses because the more he worked, the worse his headaches became. He was aggressive and at times, would call his mother – lost – unable to figure out where he was.

While traumatic brain injuries primarily have been associated over the last decade as a signature wound of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, every year more than 1.7 million Americans suffer a TBI, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

“The TBI is such a hard thing to diagnose, it’s not something physical. It’s not like a limp, it’s an invisible injury,” said Baca, who now lives in Mesa, Ariz. “I’m sure if I was walking around for 15 years not knowing, then there are plenty of people out there undiagnosed.”

In 2006, a Department of Veterans Affairs psychiatrist agreed to review the original medical records from Baca’s accident. She found a note about significant head trauma that never was diagnosed or treated as TBI by military or VA doctors. A VA neurologist later confirmed Baca suffered from TBI.

“Knowing that something is wrong, but nobody can tell you what … it finally brought some hope into my life,” he said. “That was the beginning of a lot of changes for the better.”

Baca’s accident happened on a two-week mission in Pomona, Calif. Baca was driving a soft-top tractor trailer carrying construction equipment on a freeway during rush hour when a driver cut him off. The tractor trailer slammed into stopped traffic.

Baca remembers the sound of metal hubcaps scraping against pavement and the smell of rubber burning before the trailer rolled and grated to a rest on the pavement with the passenger’s side facing the sky.

“I wasn’t in a seatbelt, and that’s probably what saved my life,” Baca said. “I probably would have gotten decapitated.”

Baca found himself partially ejected from the truck, pinned between the truck body and burning canvas top. His passenger was in a seatbelt and called Baca’s name.

“My name was the last thing that he said,” Baca said. “I was pinned under the truck and couldn’t help him, I couldn’t respond.”

Baca was pinned for 27 minutes.  He suffered a broken left femur, broken ribs and deep gashes to his face.

He spent six weeks recuperating. The damage to nerves in his legs was extensive. Doctors told Baca to get used to a wheelchair.

But with the help of a physical therapist, Baca began his recovery. It was two years before Baca took his first step, and three before he walked for the first time.

One day during a family gathering, his mother and sister looked up from the couch to see him standing. He walked from the family room, out the sliding door and jumped in the pool.

“I don’t know if he practiced at physical therapy,” said his mother Linda Madrid. “But it was just amazing to see.”

At 26, Baca moved out on his own and was working construction. But some days, he wouldn’t show up to a job and was fired.

Over the next 12 years, he said he was drinking multiple six-packs a day, and at times mixing alcohol with marijuana, cocaine or meth.

“I was self-medicating, trying to fit in, trying to work… trying to be a working person, somebody that contributes,” Baca said. “Self-medicating is a scary place to be. If you’re drinking, you have chronic pain, you can’t see things any other way. It’s hard to imagine not coming home and drinking beer.”

Eventually he mixed beer with hydrocodone, an opiate painkiller he was prescribed for chronic pain.

“I was really tired of my life,” Baca said. “I think I got really tired of it when I got my last DUI and went to jail. I wanted to change. I didn’t know how, and decided to get counseling.”

Baca’s new doctors worked out a treatment plan, but warned him if he continued to drink and use drugs, he was a prime candidate for Alzheimer’s at an early age. Baca hasn’t had a drink since.

He moved closer to his family and got married.

“If I didn’t get diagnosed with the TBI, who knows if I’d be here today?” Baca said. “Sometimes I wonder that.”

Remembering those who served

By Kelsey Hightower, News21

One hundred flags lined Mariposa Gardens Memorial Park in Mesa, Ariz., to honor those who have served and are serving in the military. Friends and family gathered inside the cemetery chapel to hear a minister’s comforting words about the fallen. The service concluded with those in attendance joining to sing songs. Boy Scouts led the crowd to place a memorial wreath at the military columbarium and release doves.

Mesa Hightower New from News21 on Vimeo.