“I wanted to find a purpose in life,” says Carlos De León about his reason for joining the Army. “And I felt being a soldier was one of the greatest purposes any American could have.” But to understand this drive to find a purpose, you’ve got to know a little bit about Carlos’s early life.
Carlos primarily lived his pre-teen years in the Lawrence, Massachusetts area, but also spent time with his father in Juana Diaz, Puerto Rico. At age 12 Carlos moved to Puerto Rico with his father and excelled in school.
Three years later Carlos – against his father’s advice –returned to live with his mother in North Carolina. Carlos struggled to adjust culturally, socially, and emotionally, and his academic performance plunged. Carlos reached out to his father and flew back to Juana Diaz.
Carlos’ time in Puerto Rico was short-lived, however, as Hurricane Georges destroyed their home and Carlos was sent back to Massachusetts.
“When my father told me I had to return to Massachusetts I could see the pain in his eyes,” Carlos says. “He felt like he was taking a big risk of possibly losing me to the streets.”
In Massachusetts Carlos found odd jobs to make ends meet. He was constantly hanging out with his cousin, Victor. In November 1998 Victor was brutally attacked and shot in the head. Amazingly Victor survived and Carlos realized more than ever he needed to find a way out. Carlos enrolled in Job Corps and earned his GED.
“Before I joined the military, my life was a bit unstable,” Carlos says. “I was trying to get life in order and the circumstances weren’t easy.
“I’d grown up going through struggles. I would go over to my friends’ houses, and I would see they had their father who was in the Army, their mother, their nice house, their kids all dressed nicely. I admired the stability and the respect of those families. I saw how things could be. So I spoke with a recruiter, and in January 2000, I was on my way to boot camp to become a U.S. Army soldier.”
Carlos was trained as an Army mechanic, and he served in many places, including a fateful deployment to Baghdad in 2007. His life would change on August 11 of that year while he was walking across his base to give his father a birthday phone call. That’s when the mortars started raining down on the base.
“The first shelter I saw was an opening between some big metal storage compartments,” he said. “As I was running toward them, a mortar fell behind me.”
Injured seriously by shrapnel, Carlos was taken first to the base hospital, then on to Kuwait, and Landstuhl, Germany before finally returning to the United States.
“My rehab and recovery have been very difficult, both physically and mentally,” said Carlos. Treatments include frequent injections in the back of his head to deal with nearly constant headaches from his traumatic brain injury. But Carlos has found ample support from both his family and Wounded Warrior Project®(WWP).
“Out of nowhere, WWP reached out to me and told me about the TRACK™ program in Jacksonville. And I thought, ‘Oh my God, Florida! That’s where I was always trying to go.’
“I wouldn’t even know where to begin describing WWP,” Carlos said. “They have been there through the ups and downs, including when we
needed them most. Wounded Warrior Project has been a life-saver, especially during the recovery process.”
Carlos has now completed TRACK – the first educational center in the nation designed specifically for Wounded Warriors –and is living with his family in Jacksonville as he continues his studies in information technology.
“My family is the most important thing to me,” he said. His wife Jellitza is pursuing a degree in nursing. His teenage son is already making plans for college. And his young daughter sings, dances, and plays soccer. “They make me very happy,” said Carlos.
“I joined the military because I wanted a new life, and I couldn’t see the light,” he continued. “For me, the military was my light. I try to make sure my kids have more than one option in life. Whether it’s the military, college, sports, or anything else, they have so many options they will never have to say they took one direction because they had no other possibilities. My wife and I know we’ve done everything possible to give our children what they need.”
And that, too, is a superbly worthy goal for a man of purpose.