Veterans Voices: Iraq war veteran shares story of homelessness, mental health struggle

Veterans Voices: Iraq war veteran shares story of homelessness, mental health struggle

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) – The story of Iraq veteran and Huntsville resident Tony Hernandez since he left the U.S. Army will, unfortunately, hit home for many people.

Hernandez joined the Army right after his first year of college around 2007, during what’s known as the “Iraq War troop surge.”

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He deployed to Iraq in 2008 and stayed for a year.

“So many, many sleepless nights,” his mother, Roseanna Cox, explained. “You pray. You just say, ‘God, you’re gonna bring them home safe.'”

Cox’s son did come home, but she says he was no longer the man she knew before his deployment.

“He was always outgoing. He was just lucky-go-happy,” she said of his demeanor before Iraq. Afterward, “he was very quiet and wanted to be on his own.”

She wondered what had happened to her son.

Hernandez didn’t talk much about what he saw and did in Iraq, but he did describe his experience re-entering the civilian world.

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“There is no, ‘welcome back home. Let’s teach you how to be a normal person again,'” he said. “They pretty much, more or less, just throw you back into society.”

That transition was hard, to say the least. He began to struggle with his mental health, which he now believes may have been caused by survivor’s guilt.

“I couldn’t go to work comfortably, because I didn’t know if I was going to come home, if he was going to be alive,” his mom said.

He faced problems he had never dealt with before.

“I was homeless in San Antonio, Texas. I was homeless in Florida. I was drifting from one VA to another just lost,” Hernandez explained. “I was completely lost as a human being, drifting across the United States in my car, searching for help.”

“When I found out about the homelessness, part of me died,” Cox said. “Whether it was my son or anybody, no one should have to go through that after you went to serve for your country.”
Hernandez said he’s not alone in his struggles, saying he and other veterans often suffer in silence.

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“I’ve lost more friends due to suicide than combat losses, and that is a mind-wrenching feeling to feel that loss: someone you know, made it with you, but once he got back he just couldn’t take the pressures,” Hernandez said.

Some of his struggles involved accessing his benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), saying it was hard to get answers at times.

“I’ve been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury, upper back injury, PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], sleep apnea and tinnitus,” he explained. “With all of that, the VA has only rated me 80% disabled.”

Hernandez eventually reached a turning point, taking steps toward healing and recovering.

“I had to be willing to grow, say, ‘Okay, the person I left as at 19 is not the same person I am now, and that’s okay because I can be better than that person,'” Hernandez said of what has now been a seven-year journey. “The VA did cover for my schooling, so they’re paying me to go to school. It’s been a long process, but things are getting better.”

After seeing and experiencing her son’s journey, Hernandez’s mom now serves veterans just like her son.

She’s on a VA advisory board and serves as a community liaison with the Semper Fi Community Task Force, a 501(c)(3) organization whose mission is to support and assist “Veterans, Military, First Responders, their families, and Gold Star families through direct engagement programs, and community service and action.”

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“I’ll forever be a voice for my veterans, whether my son had gone through what he went through or not,” Cox said. “No veteran, no family, no mother should ever go through the storm, the darkness that I had to go through.”

Hernandez now works a full-time job, and he’s engaged to be married.

He and his mom tell his story in hopes of reaching even just one other veteran who may be struggling.

“I’m glad I’m getting to plan a wedding instead of having to plan a funeral, and I came so close,” his mom said. “For anybody out there, any mother that’s going through any of this, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Do not give up.”

Hernandez also had advice for any veteran who may be in the situation he was in years ago.

“Speak out. At first, it will feel like the world is collapsing around you, like there’s nothing that’s going to make this better, but that’s part of the process,” he explained. “It is going to be tough and you will struggle, but that’s the beauty of it: afterward, you get to see all the hard work.”

According to one VA researcher, signs of an emerging crisis may include appearing sad or depressed most of the time, feelings of hopelessness, and mood swings.

If you’re a veteran in crisis or are concerned about one, contact the Veterans Crisis Line for 24/7 confidential support, by calling 988 and pressing 1.

You don’t have to be enrolled in VA benefits or health care to connect with the Veterans Crisis Line. To chat online, click here. You can also text 838-255.

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