#WhatWorks – Finding Your Purpose

Erik Villasenor hiking


Three veterans share via essays on Medium how they rediscovered a sense of purpose after life in the military.

Refuse to Lose: A Warrior’s Return Home

By Erik Villaseñor

Erik Villasenor hiking

I was handed my DD214 in September 2010. An honorable discharge. I wasted no time getting enrolled in college. My ass was in a classroom seat by October 2010 at the Art Institute of Denver, where I would study graphic design. Thanks to the Post 9/11 GI Bill, I was able to attend school full-time and focus on my studies. I graduated magna cum laude with “Best Portfolio,” and my wife and family were very proud of me. I was proud of myself. Considering I was a below-average student in high school, when I applied what the Army had taught me plus the traumas of war, a college education didn’t seem all too difficult to obtain. I had some tough days, of course, but nothing compared to patrolling the steep mountains of the Korengal or the bomb-riddled streets of Baghdad.

Despite all I was able to achieve after leaving the Army, I struggled with anger, nightmares, and an array of other cognitive issues that made it difficult to adjust to civilian life. I had a very unhealthy relationship with alcohol and used it to suppress what I could. Oftentimes the drinking made things worse, sometimes making me uncontrollably violent. My tipping point came one night in downtown Colorado Springs when I was fueled by way too much tequila.

Read more on Medium here.

Theater Saved My Life

By Jenny Pacanowski

From backstage, I could hear the eerie sound cue reverberating through my body as I exploded with my fellow actors and veterans onto the studio floor into the war scene. My breath quickened as the explosion ripped through the air. It felt like I was back there, back in Iraq.

I hated the opening scenes of The Veterans Project with director Fay Simpson. Going on stage as a service member in the military reminded my mind and body of something I was hoping to forget forever. I feared flashing back. I was desperately trying to stay in the present.

What I hated even more was playing a civilian in the later scenes.

I was discovered by Fay Simpson when Alex Mallory put me on a stage in New York City at the Bowery Poetry Club. As my pain flowed over the audience, the breath sucked out of the room by my rage, I felt the stir of who I could be off stage and the potency I had on stage.

At the time, I would come off stage feeling a whisper of relief and then the jolt of returning to my trauma, which would bleed all over my life after each performance. I needed something to do after shows, something to bring me back, but I wasn’t exactly sure what would do it. My therapist recommended I use a metaphorical coat that I could put on before walking on stage and then take off after I finished. Taking off the coat would help put those old memories and feelings back in the recesses of my mind.

Read more on Medium here.

Connection, Passion & Purpose

By Roderick Gabriel

Roderick Gabriel with Team RWB

My Army career began to end soon after I crashed a government vehicle during a training exercise in 2005. At that time in my life, I was drinking too much and addicted to methamphetamine, which I began using after I returned from a deployment in Iraq in 2003 and 2004.

My command was gracious and allowed me an honorable discharge so long as I completed a substance abuse program. After 30 days of clean living in a residential program, I left treatment and the Army thinking I was ready to go off into the world on my own.

I was wrong.

The program got me clean, but it hadn’t helped me deal with the underlying issues that were driving me to drugs and alcohol. For eight years after leaving the Army, I swung back and forth from being clean to being wasted; from being free to being locked up.

In 2014, I was released from the custody of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation after serving just over four years of a 64-month prison sentence. Just like after I left the substance abuse program, I left prison clean and feeling ready to take on whatever came next.

I was wrong again.

I had nothing. I had lost it all. When I left prison, I lost the only home I’d known for the previous four years.

Being homeless turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me. I was able to get into a veterans recovery home called Veterans Village of San Diego (VVSD). It was there that I was afforded the opportunity to take advantage of Veteran Affairs Health Care, receive treatment for my substance abuse, and get counseling for PTSD. Most of all, I learned how much community matters.

Read more on Medium here.

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Essay Contest, Purpose, Team RWB, theater, what works