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Finding Purpose: How One Veteran Built a Fulfilling Career by Giving Back

“PADDLE. FISH. HEAL. I kept thinking about that. I didn’t understand it at first but now I get it. It’s something about kayak fishing that just really helps with my Post-Traumatic Stress.”

Rick Gonzalez, Heroes on the Water Central California Chapter’s Assistant Secretary, lived a life that wasn’t always easy. He says he was an angry kid who didn’t necessarily love school and didn’t have many plans for his future until a military recruiter called. That call would ultimately change his trajectory in life…

A Life-Changing Question

Rick Gonzalez was about 8 years old when he and his brother began working in the fields in his home state of California, a job which he thought would be his only option for his future. He says that as a young boy, he often got into fights and was frequently in trouble. Rick didn’t really enjoy school either and says that he didn’t really have any plans for his future until one day when the phone rang.

“One summer between my junior and senior year I got a phone call at home. It was an Army recruiter who asked, ‘May I speak to Enrique?’” says Rick. “I answered and his question to me was, ‘What do you plan on doing after high school?’. That question got the ball rolling.”

After speaking with that recruiter, Rick developed a newfound direction for his life. He began focusing on graduating high school taking night classes and even doing independent study to have enough credits to graduate so that he could join the Army. While he says he barely made it, Rick was able to graduate in time to leave California for basic training at Fort Dix.

Rick became a heavy wheel mechanic, a job that was fitting since he had always enjoyed working with his hands and, as he puts it, “turning wrenches with my dad and my uncle.”  He selected to stay to learn how to be a recovery specialist, which meant he had to recover vehicles that were disabled by either fixing, towing, or demolishing them.

Rick decided after his initial seven years he wanted to continue his military career and re-enlisted for four more. Desert Storm broke out and his enlistment was extended again. He would have continued his military career, were it not for the significant impact of post-traumatic stress along with other debilitating injuries.

The Impacts of Service

Rick moved to California with his wife and child but was diagnosed with PTS shortly before his service was ending. He returned to Bakersfield, where he continued to work as a mechanic. Dealing with Post Traumatic Stress had profound impacts not only on his personal mental health, but also on his family life. He says he turned to alcohol and substance abuse to try to ease the symptoms he experienced, but this alienated those closest to him and eventually left him alone and without a job.

“During that time, I ended up homeless. Sleeping in my car. I had a job at the time and parked my car there. Also, I got into drugs,” says Rick. “It got to where I did not want to live anymore and contemplated suicide. So I took a bunch of pills one night. Luckily, I did not succeed in my suicide the attempt.”

Many might have given up at this point and Rick admits that in his despair he had attempted to take his own life. His daughter was the main motivation for the choice to get sober and push forward.

“Three or four years after getting out of the service I had lost my wife and child. I lost my job. I was homeless and I didn’t want to live. About 8 months after that, something just snapped. I was so close to taking my life. I thought about how it would affect my daughter and that’s when I made the choice to live,” says Rick. “I got myself cleaned up and started working again.  Unfortunately, I kept losing jobs due to drinking and self-medicating until I finally went and got help at the VA.”

How Giving Back Brought New Purpose

Rick was able to use resources from the Veteran’s Administration to get back on his feet. In doing so, he found a new passion for helping other veterans. During his tour in Iraq, Rick got a taste of the medical field and he liked it. He had to overcome several hurdles due to injuries he received during his service, which included broken hands and arms. Once he got his Service Connection Disability though, the VA paid for his education.

Working for the VA is a fulfilling job for Rick that allows him to give back. He works as a medical support assistant, handling all logistics for two teams – a doctor, nurse and LVN each.

Rick has also found a new energy and passion in working with Heroes on the Water and attending VSO events. He was invited on a HOW fishing trip by a good friend. He didn’t know what to expect because he had never done anything with veterans before and had never even heard of a Veteran Service Organization. However, Rick says he quickly fell in love with these outings and began attending HOW events frequently.

“I got invited again and went. I fell in love even more. I went a third time and it just kept getting better and better. I’m really enjoying this – being out there with fellow vets and HOW staff on the water, in the sun,” says Rick. “It was relaxing, and it made me forget about my worries.”

“PADDLE. FISH. HEAL. I kept thinking about that,” says Rick.  “I didn’t understand it at first but now I get it. It’s something about kayak fishing that just really helps with my PTS.”

Heroes on the Water is dedicated to supporting the many veterans, first responders, and their families who passionately support our communities by holding kayaking fishing events that provide spaces for our warriors to relax and reconnect, enhance inner peace, and build camaraderie with other individuals who have similar experiences.

Your donation, no matter how small, supports our brave men and women who run toward danger when the rest of us run away. Give the gift of peace and donate today.

PADDLE. FISH. HEAL.

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Showing 4 comments
  • Harry Franco
    Reply

    I am super happy you took me up on my invite to try kayaking/fishing and see how much that has helped you with your PTS.
    Love you brother,
    Toujours Pret

    • Heroes on the Water
      Reply

      Thank you for sharing.

  • Bonnie Hill
    Reply

    Great story. Heros on Water touches a lot of lives. First responders as well@

    • Heroes on the Water
      Reply

      Thank you Bonnie!

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