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MISSION — When retired U.S. Army Sgt. David Guzman sits in his backyard at the end of the day and listens to the mockingbirds sing and watches the trees sway in the wind, he asks himself what good, if any, he’s done for the day.
“I’m just here to do what I can,” Guzman said. “My second chance in life is to pass on what I can to other veterans.”
Tomorrow, Guzman and fellow veteran and Mission police officer Rolando Perez, both Mission residents, will honor wounded soldiers and remind the community that military members need all the support they can get.
The Wounded Warrior Project’s Soldier Ride will be in San Antonio for a 15-mile bike ride. The event allows wounded soldiers to “battle the physical and psychological damages of war,” through cycling officials said.
For Guzman, who on Sept. 17, 2004 was struck by shrapnel from a roadside bomb in Iraq, piercing his right left, right wrist and right cheek, the road to recovery and speaking openly about the need for support has been long and winding.
“It’s a macho idea, ‘There’s nothing wrong with me,’” he said of soldiers suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder, or PSTD. “It took me years to come out of my shell.”
It took Guzman two years to relearn how to speak as the result of his traumatic brain injury. He also had to be taught how to walk again.
“My life turned sideways after these injuries,” he said. “I was once a healthy, fit soldier, now I’m a disabled veteran.”
Guzman turned to academics after he was released from the Army in October 2005. At South Texas College, he earned associate degrees in culinary arts and interdisciplinary studies. He later went to Texas A&M University-Kingsville to get a degree in agricultural science.
“In a way, it was therapy,” he said of college.
He eventually crossed paths with the Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) to help veterans who’ve dealt with the same recovery stresses he has. He was later selected for the national campaign.
With the national team, Guzman speaks for wounded veterans and helps with fundraisers for emergency services, backpacks or air trips for veterans and their families.
“They gave me the tools to rebuild my life,” Guzman said of WWP.
In his travels with WWP, Guzman has met with musicians who’ve written songs in support of soldiers like Dierks Bentley who recently released the single, “Home,” which Guzman said he identifies with. Last month, he gave Bentley a U.S. flag he’s flown at his home every Sept. 11. In their meeting, Bentley thanked Guzman for his service and called him a hero.
“In some ways, I don’t want to be called a hero, but it comes with being a soldier,” he said.
In the Soldier Ride, Guzman said he likes the freedom of riding alongside fellow soldiers.
“When you look back and see all these veterans some with one leg or one arm trying to ride a bike, you think, ‘I really need to do something to help these guys,’” he said.
WWP offers unique ways to allow soldiers an outlet for help.
“It’s OK to ask for help,” Guzman said. “You can do it discreetly.”
Veterans can approach WWP versus the Veterans Administration for help in finding ways to talk about PSTD or getting assistance.
But locally, the average citizen can offer the greatest help in the smallest ways.
“When I went to visit one of my soldiers from my unit who died after I got hit by the IED, I stopped to visit his parents first who took me to the cemetery,” Guzman recalled. “And when I turned around, 50 people were there to welcome me and thank me. It’s a small town, but it was so humbling to see them there.”
Guzman said he wants to see Mission welcome home its veterans to let them know the community supports them.
“I’d love to see the citizens from Mission and the council members, the mayor, the police and fire departments welcome them home,” he said. “We should welcome them home and not just recognize them on Veterans Day or Memorial Day.
“Some people really take it to heart. It goes back to veterans not feeling too comfortable to speak about what they’ve been through, but I know they would appreciate someone there at the airport to welcome them home.”
Parades are nice, Guzman said, but a soldier’s short visit home is dramatically improved by a community welcome.
“It doesn’t cost much,” he explained. “Just a small token from a local restaurant, a coffee shop. I know the Valley is sometimes emotionally reserved, but we’re American, how come we can’t be like that?”
Recently, the Mission Rotary Club donated bicycles to Guzman and Perez for their ride.
“I know they’re patriotic,” he said of Mission city officials, admitting that it’s intimidating to approach the city about helping veterans with tight budgets. “But some people in different parts of the community don’t know.”
With his love of cooking, Guzman dreams of opening a smokehouse restaurant. He says he’ll offer veterans a place to have someone to talk to and grab a meal.
In the future, he’d also like to bring the Soldier Ride to the Rio Grande Valley.
“It doesn’t have to be too big,” he said. “Maybe from Alton to Mission or Mission to South Padre Island. And we can meet afterward to bring awareness to the issues veterans have.”
And with news that soldiers stationed in Iraq will be returning home soon, Guzman hopes citizens are ready.
“I think they’d feel wanted and thankful to get something like a flag from the city,” he said. “Little things matter. We’ll have all these vets coming home and now what? We need to be prepared. We have important people from Mission and they were doing the most important job.”
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The Progress Times is the hometown newspaper for the local communities of Mission, Sharyland, Alton, Palmview, La Joya and surrounding areas in Western Hidalgo County. We have a staff of veteran reporters who work diligently every week to bring our readers the latest news as it affects their hometown area and people.