When U.S. Marine Corps Lance Corporal Mario Figueroa was honorably discharged in 2005 after one tour of duty in Iraq as a team and squad leader, he was lucky to be physically healthy.
“I have some hearing loss,” he said. “Bad tinnitus. I had a couple of close calls with IEDs” – improvised explosive devices – “but I was lucky.”
Even so, he adds, “I was diagnosed with post traumatic stress. Unlike a lot of guys, I was open to counseling. I immediately checked into a VA hospital and got the help that I needed.”
Figueroa, who turns 33 on Tuesday, grew up in Green Bay, Wisc, the child of a Caucasian mother and a Mexican-American father.
“[My father] left when I was pretty young,” Figueroa said, “so I don’t speak Spanish. My mom will point out, ‘But before your dad left you spoke good Spanish!’”
He went to college for a few months, but wound up enlisting instead. “About three-quarters of my platoon was from Texas, and at first they were a bit wary of me. ‘You’re a Mexican and you don’t even know what a tamale is?’”
It’s a cultural deficit that he was in a rush to fix.
“One of my buddies in Iraq, his abuela would send tamales for Christmas,” he remembers. “Man, they were good. Now I can’t get enough of them.”
Figueroa is now an English literature student at Columbia University, with a published short story to his name, and a program director at the United War Veterans Council, a non-profit organization active in veteran’s issues that also produces the Veterans Day Parade in New York City.
“We call it America’s Parade,” Figueroa says.
He said he is now trying to improve the support system for veterans, so they can get the mental help they need when they return from combat.
“There are 18 to 22 veterans who commit suicide every day,” he said. “That’s unbelievable, and a lot of it is because guys don’t get the opportunities they need.”
He said the New York City parade he is helping organize could raise awareness about the plight of veterans.
The parade is being televised in nine other cities – including Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas and Phoenix – with contributions from veterans in each market.
“We have the opportunity,” he adds, “to be the magnifying glass, the spotlight that makes everyone aware of veteran’s issues.”