“During the most difficult hours of my life, you quietly insisted on doing everything within your ability to ease my pain and grief,” reads the plaque sent by Diana Griffin, wife of Army Staff Sgt. Darrell Griffin Jr. “You did not patronize my grief with empty platitudes, but allowed me to be who I am, and feel what I needed to feel. You did not speak trite words of sympathy but sought to know and understand my husband, to glimpse a portion of my loss. . . .”
Cabrera hung it in his office, in a place more prominent than any of his awards or degrees.
In 2010, he was named an assistant professor of family medicine at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, which serves as the medical school for the Department of Defense and bears the motto “Learning to Care for Those in Harm’s Way.”
He counseled soldiers and students in a down-to-earth style of tough love and raw humor. Even after earning his PhD, he was known as a street-smart academic.
“He’s just very energetic, approachable and human,” said Col. Brian Unwin, a doctor at USU who worked with Cabrera. “He related well to people, and he had no trouble dropping an f-bomb — in a therapeutic way.”
When Cabrera arrived at Camp Phoenix outside Kabul, he was one of three mental health specialists caring for 10,000 NATO troops. That meant shuttling among the 10 forward operating bases while coordinating care with the designated psychologist and psychiatrist, who were stationed on separate bases.
The psychiatrist had never deployed and asked Cabrera’s advice.
“He said, ‘Make sure you’re part of the deployment experience. Make sure you’re going through the same rigors that everyone else is going through,’ ” said Maj. Joe Coles. “ ‘They won’t come to you unless they feel they can count on you.’ ”
Cabrera befriended a former bomb dog named Lucy and made her a partner. Soldiers often give a wide berth to mental health workers, so the friendly chocolate German shorthaired Labrador served to open mental doors.
One of his patients, Staff Sgt. Janel Travis, called Cabrera “awesome weird.”
“I’ve had a lot of therapists. He was unique,” she said. “It was like he was born to help people. Or at least to help me.”
Because it can take so long to move between bases, Cabrera would often see patients into the night (Travis’s regular appointment time was 11 p.m.). Then he was up the next morning, often on the “Rhino” armored bus.