James Rivera grew up in Boonton, a small town in northern New Jersey. After he graduated, James worked at an auto dealer's repair shop. He wasn't happy there.
“It wasn't working out. I was bored, and needed to challenge myself,” Rivera said.
“So I joined the Marines, just after my 26th birthday in May 2001.”
James signed up for the infantry, and trained in motor transport. After 9/11, his unit didn't go overseas right away. But when they did, in 2004, they were sent to Fallujah. And that's where his day occurred, while James was driving a Humvee.
“August 22, 2004. We were on a routine mission from Camp Fallujah to Abu Ghraib prison. It was just like a movie. I said to my friend, 'This is one of the easiest missions we've had.' Sure enough, a mile down the road the IED bomb went off about 12 feet away on our left side. It was the loudest sound, one I've never heard and will never hear again, hopefully,” Rivera said.
“When I opened my eyes, the Humvee was filled with dust and the windshield was blown out. I knew I had to get us out of the kill zone, so I gunned it and drove straight ahead, just like they do in NASCAR after a crash,” Rivera said. “What saved us what that they put the bomb under the road, and the pavement absorbed the brunt of the blast.”
James had taken the worst of it, with shrapnel, debris and glass embedded into the left side of his face. He was treated and served out his enlistment. It wasn't until a couple of years later that he realized things were not right.
“Every vehicle was questioned, every little piece of debris was suspect. I drove in the middle of the road, if I could,” he said.
“I was angry all the time, and listless. I had no motivation to do anything.”
A Veterans Affairs counselor in Houston, where James was living, told him about the TRAC program in Jacksonville that Wounded Warrior Project developed to help veterans like James move their lives forward.
The program also put James on a career path for something he enjoys.
“My externship was with the City of Jacksonville's solid waste division,” he said.
“About a year ago, a contractor hired me to do the cleanout of foreclosed homes, and that's going really well.”
James' personal life also is going well.
“I have a wonderful girlfriend whom I've known for a few years. We're living together now. It's a big step but we see a future together,” he said.
“She wants to get into graphic design, and we may be moving to Los Angeles in a year or so. She'll be able to work on her career, and with what I do, I can pick up and start over anywhere.”
James still scans the side of roads.
Rivera said, “I realized that hyper-vigilance stays with you. I've talked to Vietnam veterans who're still suffering from PTSD. It's the new normal.”