ORLANDO, Fla. – When Yomari Cruz returned home after serving in Afghanistan with the U.S. Army, she found herself struggling with adjusting to civilian life.
The structure and comradery of military life, combined with the heightened emotions of being in a combat zone, took its toll on Cruz when she came back to Central Florida.
Cruz decided to join the Army with her husband, but she said he wasn’t able to pass the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, or ASVAB as it is commonly known.
She kept her commitment to join and enlisted in 2010, although her marriage ended in divorce, she said.
After basic training and Advanced Individual Training, or AIT, which teach soldiers the skills needed for their specific job, Cruz was told to “go out-process,” meaning she was going to war.
“I looked at them a little bit confused. And they were like ‘Oh, you haven’t heard? We’re going to Afghanistan,’” Cruz said. She had 30 days to visit family and process the fact that she was being deployed so soon.
Cruz ended up spending a year in Afghanistan, but admitted that things got real as soon as they landed in the country.
“All of a sudden the alarms started going off, and the sirens are going off, and there’s commotion, and there’s screaming, and there’s yelling,” Cruz said. “With all of that going on at one time and everyone yelling take cover and get your positions -- this is going to be my life for the next year. This is literally going to be my life.”
The lack of sleep and the attacks on her base were one thing, but Cruz also had to deal with being one of the only women in her unit.
“There were some situations that happened overseas that led to an internal battle of emotions when it came to betrayal,” Cruz said.
That betrayal overseas brought her back to the U.S. where she saw a fellow servicemember go to court for their actions and eventually be serviced to time in jail.
A year later, Cruz left the Army when she medically retired.
Transitioning back into civilian life wasn’t easy for Cruz. Feeling isolated, fighting depression and PTSD, she felt lost.
Cruz recalls her neighbors had Wounded Warrior Project stickers on their cars and the logo on their clothing, so she asked them about the nonprofit organization.
She remembers struggling during a neighborhood Fourth of July celebration and the kindness of that same neighbor during that night.
“I just panicked. It just brought me right back to Afghanistan,” Cruz said.
Her neighbor sat with her that evening and helped her feel safe – two veterans understanding each other’s struggles.
“We’re registering you tonight,” she recalled her neighbor saying about the Wounded Warrior Project. They signed up that evening, and her neighbor even accompanied her to their first event.
“Ever since then, it was life-changing,” Cruz said.
The Wounded Warrior Project serves veterans and service members who served on or after Sept. 11, 2001, and incurred a physical or mental injury, illness or wound during or after service.
“They create an environment where they house different resources, whether that’s you’re seeking a job, you’re seeking mental health resources, you’re seeking an environment where you need to kind of work through getting over your trauma,” Cruz said.
Cruz said the Wounded Warrior Project came at the perfect time for her, a time where she realized that she needed additional support.
“I really needed a team there to be able to walk me through and understand and say, ‘You’re never alone,’” Cruz said.
Cruz’s involvement with the WWP has taken her whitewater rafting with Project Odyssey, a 12-week mental health program for veterans that uses adventure-based learning to help warriors. She also had the opportunity to visit the White House and Capitol Hill to advocate for veterans and be on a veterans-only episode of the Family Feud that helped raise money for the WWP.
Despite the trauma Cruz endured, she said she has no regrets about joining the Army.
“Stay strong, push forward, learn as much as you can, because it’s definitely a life-changing experience and it’s the best thing that’s happened to me.”