Veteran of Iraq, Afghanistan finds a mission at home

Ex-Marine Ricardo Reyes posed as a homeless vet and lived in a shelter

You know how it can be with e-mail. You waste so much time getting rid of the junk, you can miss the good stuff.

This occurred to me last week, when I came to a message I'd missed, from April of 2011.

"Dear Mr. Lopez," it began, "my name is Ricardo Reyes."

He said he had served in both Afghanistan and Iraq as a Marine, and after his 2004 discharge he had been working "to improve foreign policy after seeing first-hand the effects of war." He wrote that he and other veterans were advocating for better housing, healthcare and jobs for those who had served.

To learn more about the needs of less-fortunate veterans, he wrote, "I decided to pose as a homeless veteran and checked myself into a homeless shelter. I'm appalled by my findings and shocked by the disservice provided to our veterans."

Last week, as insurgents with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria moved toward Baghdad, I wondered what a vet might have to say about it. And this sounded like a veteran who had something to say. How did he feel about seeing the country in which he'd risked his life teeter once again on the verge of chaos — after a trillion-dollar U.S. investment and the loss of thousands of lives?

So I called Reyes and learned that he hasn't abandoned his post. He was in the first week of a new job, working for the United Way of Greater Los Angeles to help implement Mayor Eric Garcetti's initiative to find jobs for 10,000 veterans by 2017.

I met up with Reyes at his downtown office building. He was mapping out plans to connect with nonprofits that serve veterans, as well as with some of the 100 employers who have pledged to hire them, including banks, phone companies, universities and entertainment agencies.

Regarding current events in Iraq, Reyes has been watching closely, and he's worried. Former Vice President Dick Cheney, who pushed the U.S. into war in 2003 with claims about weapons of mass destruction, has now blamed President Obama for creating the current mess by pulling out troops. Obama, meanwhile, has vowed to send 300 advisors to Iraq.

Reyes is unsurprised by the instability. And he's hoping the U.S. doesn't repeat the mistake of thinking there's a military solution.

He's a much different man now than the 20-year-old who enlisted in 2000 and was proud to serve, first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. But even back then it never seemed clear to him what the mission was in Iraq. He followed orders, but he wondered why civilians were being paid by the U.S. military for information that couldn't be verified and how Marines were supposed to distinguish between civilians and terrorists and why he was guarding oil supply lines.

"What you want to do when you're there is stay safe and make sure to bring your buddies back home," said Reyes, who completed active duty in 2004, got a job moving furniture, studied for a real estate license and later became a loan officer at the beginning of what would become the sub-prime mortgage scandal.

In that job, he went from feeling that he was helping families to feeling that he was setting them up for financial ruin. Although he hadn't set out to deceive anyone, he watched his former clients go under, and he began to see narrative parallels between the effects of his unquestioning military service and his corporate obedience.

"There was a moment between 2008 and 2009 where there was a spark, almost an awakening that I went through," said Reyes, who became obsessed with righting his wrongs.

He left his sub-prime lending job and set up his own business modifying loans to help keep people in their homes. He began researching U.S. oil dependency and became an advocate for alternative energy and diplomatic support rather than military intervention whenever and wherever possible.

He became a labor organizer in the fight for living-wage jobs, he joined Iraq Veterans Against the War and met with other veterans and politicians to advocate for better services. And in 2010, he temporarily moved into a homeless shelter while going to school by day, so he could study the needs of veterans.

"I was shocked by how many young vets were homeless," Reyes said.

He found that despite the skills they'd learned in the military, they hadn't been able to link up with suitable jobs, and those who'd had horrific wartime experiences often found it hard to get the support they needed.

"They were treated with very little dignity, and there was no privacy or respect for them."

Assemblyman Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood), who represents the South Gate area where Reyes lives with his wife and two children, and where he ran unsuccessfully for City Council last year — is among a number of public officials who came to know Reyes for his many passions, from environmental justice to affordable housing.

"Obviously he has the antiwar causes, but it goes way beyond that," Rendon said.

"He's sort of a quiet, humble guy," said Alicia Lara, the United Way's executive vice president of community investment. But she said Reyes "blew us away" in his job interview, becoming the standout candidate when "he started talking about his time at the shelter and what he came to realize while working for the lending company."

When he enlisted in 2000, Reyes told me, his mission was public service. He's changed now, but the mission hasn't.

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