They were in Ramadi, Anbar Province, Iraq in 2005. It was already shaping up to be a hard day. Cruz had just learned that his best friend, who had been fighting in Iraq with a different unit, had been killed by a sniper the day before.
Despite being told to stay in place, Pfc. Chassan Henry wouldn’t let Cruz go alone. Following close behind, Henry was struck in the chest by a mortar round. Cruz picked Henry up, held him in his arms. The two men stared at one another. Henry was still breathing, barely.
“If he wasn’t going to let me go alone, I wasn’t going to let him go alone,” Cruz said.
A few minutes later, Henry was gone, but the look in his friend’s eyes would continue to haunt Cruz.
Several years later, when Cruz was being questioned during Soldier Readiness Processing (SRP) before deployment to Afghanistan, he answered truthfully when his interviewers asked him if he had symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Cruz struggled with survivors’ guilt. He was also diagnosed with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), likely the result of an injury he sustained in an earlier deployment to Iraq, for which he earned a Purple Heart. Instead of being sent to Afghanistan, Cruz went to a treatment program in Pueblo, Colo.
But that couldn’t save his military career. Cruz was forced into medical retirement in 2010.
“I just didn’t want to get out of the Army,” Cruz said. “I wasn’t ready. I had already put in almost, like two months shy, of 11 years. I was over the hump. I had nine years left. Why would I want to get out? I just wanted to get help.”
Since his retirement, pretty much everything has been difficult for Cruz. He has struggled to maintain a job. He was evicted, left to live in his car and in motels for a period before landing back at his mother’s house in the Chicago suburb of Cicero.
He went through a divorce, a couple of breakups, and is now fighting for shared custody of his four children. At his lowest point, Cruz drove to the mountains in Colorado with plans to jump to his death. Only a memory from years before when he promised his daughter he would come back from war kept him from killing himself.
“[I] kept telling [myself], you’re such a hypocrite. You made it back, and now you’re going to end it? There’s always a way. There’s always a solution,” said Cruz.
Now Cruz goes to therapy regularly, and things finally seem to be looking up for him. He enrolled in college at DePaul University where he is studying business administration. And he recently decided he wants to give back to other soldiers and veterans.
Cruz signed up to be a volunteer veteran with Illinois Warrior to Warrior, a nonprofit that connects veterans with National Guard service members. Volunteers go to monthly National Guard drills to get to know service members and connect them with resources — the group can help its members find employment, housing and therapy. He knows that if he can get soldiers to open up and talk about their problems, it will help them.
Staff at Illinois Warrior to Warrior are helping Cruz with his own needs as well. In late October, he met with Adam Hughes, the nonprofit’s director of outreach and recruiting, to work on his resume. On his way to the meeting, Cruz got a call from a human resources staffer at one of the Chicago Veterans Administration hospitals. She offered him a job as a medical support assistant working weekends and holidays. A perfect fit so he could continue going to school. And at a salary of almost $31,000, Cruz would make enough money to move out of his family’s house and finally get a place of his own. He tentatively starts on Nov. 30.
Learn more about Kevin’s story and the Illinois Warrior to Warrior program by watching this short documentary.