FORT LEWIS, Wash. - Armando Mejia is a living contrast; the former infantry Soldier with the sharp edges and tough demeanor common to the profession now spends his days in a softer arena- playing with, mentoring and advocating for children.

Mejia, a former Wounded Warrior and the military liaison for the Boys and Girls Clubs of South Puget Sound, spoke about this transition to more than 400 Warriors in Transition, staff and community members at the Warrior Transition Battalion's town hall here Dec. 4.

"Even if you're at the bottom, the bottom of the road, there's always hope out there," he said.

He hit that bottom on Oct. 29, 2004, when his convoy in Iraq was struck by an improvised explosive device. His own words that morning for the convoy foreshadowed the event and the aftermath: "If you get hit by an IED today, hold on and pray, because we leave no Soldier behind."

Within 20 minutes of the explosion, Mejia was medically evacuated to a forward operating base and then to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Germany. He went on to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Washington, D.C., before heading to Madigan's medical-hold unit.

His complex injuries, which earned Mejia a Purple Heart, included internal bleeding, burns, a broken arm and enough damage to his left knee and right foot to warrant 20 surgeries; they began what he called the worst eight months of his life.

"I was in a wheelchair for about eight months and it was tough, because I couldn't do anything," said Mejia, a veteran of 11 years. "That's when (post-traumatic stress disorder) started kicking in. I didn't know what it was."

His wife, Melinda, noticed the changes - the depression, anger, frustration and impatience - and called behavioral health. But Mejia couldn't connect with his therapist, who hadn't been in combat and wouldn't open up to her for months on end.

Spending time at the Boys and Girls Clubs, where he interned, helped.

"Just being with them made me forget about my injuries, Iraq, everything. It was a different side of me when I went into the club," Mejia said.

School was also therapeutic for him. While studying for his associate degree he wrote a paper on PTSD, which served as a catalyst in his healing.

"That paper, when I wrote it, I got hooked. It was like my medicine; I wanted to understand it," Mejia said.

The medicine worked.

Mejia became more involved with the community and with his education. He interned with the Boys and Girls Clubs in 2006 while earning his bachelor's degree in social work, and became an employee there in 2007. He's currently in a social work master's program.

He's still volunteering- helping his brother's Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps unit, and starting a Boys and Girls Club color guard.

Mejia encouraged Soldiers to also become involved with local communities, believing the interaction will open up new possibilities for them.

"It's a whole new world on the other side of the wall; if they get out in the community, they can probably find some new skills or talents they didn't know they had," Mejia said.

Suzanne Ovel is the Public Affairs Officer with the Fort Lewis Warrior Transition Battalion. This article appeared in Fort Lewis' Northwest Guardian

Page last updated Fri December 12th, 2008 at 14:35