Topaz Navarro’s life has been defined by service.
In honor of his more than 27-year dedication to duty, Navarro, of Columbia, was chosen as grand marshal for Sunday’s eighth annual Howard County Veterans Day Parade and Celebration.
Navarro, a retired sergeant major of the U.S. Army who spent numerous deployments in the Middle East and North Africa, volunteers for multiple veterans support groups and mental health organizations in the region.
“He’s just a guy that has made it his life’s purpose to serve,” said Robert Gillette, an eight-year Navy veteran and president of the Howard County Veterans Foundation. “Our theme for this year’s parade is ‘honor through service’ and he just personifies that.”
Navarro, 45, is a two-time Bronze Star and two-time Air Medal recipient. He said he was surprised and humbled to hear that parade organizers had selected him for the ceremonial role. He wants to use the platform to uplift the stories and experiences of more than 20,000 veterans living in the county.
“I just want to be able to continue to advocate for the veteran and active duty community and to be able to continue to be a voice that helps bring people out of the darkness,” Navarro said. “At the end of the day, we’re saving lives and that’s what it’s all about.”
Navarro’s military career began when he enlisted in the New Jersey National Guard after graduating high school in Lakewood, New Jersey, in 1995. He says his decision was in some ways inevitable.
“I didn’t realize that at the time [but] it must have been just one of those things that was deep down in my soul,” he said. “I’m from a family that serves.”
The list of veterans in his family is extensive: a grandfather who fought in the Korean War and received a Purple Heart; a retired Army lieutenant colonel aunt; an uncle who served in the Marine Corps; and an older brother and cousin who are Army combat veterans. Today, Navarro’s son, Giovan, and nephew, Benjamin Hernandez, are in the Army.
In 1997, Navarro transitioned from the National Guard to active duty in the Army and, because of lingering Cold War threat assessments, was sent to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, to learn Russian.
After stints in Arizona; Dexheim, Germany; and Fort Hood, Texas, Navarro found himself living in Savage after joining Special Operations.
“I was here training and doing things in Maryland and Sept. 11 happened,” he said. “After 2001, my life became deployment, upon deployment, upon deployment, upon deployment.”
That constant cycle eventually took a toll on Navarro’s mental health and began to affect his family life and friendships. In 2019, after years of operational deployments, several of Navarro’s teammates died by suicide within 45 days of each other.
Shortly thereafter, Navarro founded a nonprofit, Work Play Obsession All In Foundation, to provide health and wellness programs for active duty and retired military, law enforcement, first responders and their family members.
“We were providing recreational activities to help heal the invisible wounds of trauma,” Navarro said. “We were creating mostly jiu-jitsu events to bring veterans and family members together and just build a community of shared belonging and shared experience.”
When the pandemic hit and shut down the in-person work of the foundation, its board members decided to “divide and conquer,” according to Navarro, using their skill sets to help other organizations. He joined the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ Howard County affiliate, where he serves as vice president of the board.
Navarro and three other veterans working with the alliance started the NAMI Connection Veteran Support Group, a free group for veterans living with mental illness that meets the first Monday of every month.
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In addition to his work with NAMI, Navarro continues to volunteer for other local groups, including the Howard County Local Health Improvement Coalition, veterans’ care coordinator ServingTogether, the National Association of Minority Veterans and the National Association of Black Veterans.
“I just tried to get out as much as I can and advocate for mental health awareness, reducing the stigma and then ensuring that veterans, dependents and family members know about the resources that are available,” Navarro said.
Gillette says the county has taken great strides to improve veterans resources the last two decades. He’s a former member of the Howard County Commission for Veterans and Military Families, which was founded in 2011 and focuses on raising visibility of local veterans and military families alongside the veterans foundation.
“We’re on your PTA, we’re part of your youth sports league, some of us have become teachers and police and firefighters and other first responders and business owners,” Gillette said. “Everywhere you turn, veterans and military families are part of your community.”
Navarro retired from the Army in January and now does business development for Columbia-based cybersecurity company Global Networks Inc. Despite living in Howard County for almost 20 years, he says he didn’t learn about many mental health services until he started to transition out of the military. He wants to ensure active duty members know a support community is waiting for them.
“We have to reach people before they’re in a mental health crisis,” Navarro said. “We have to let them know that we’re here and that we’re providing support networks and groups before there’s a crisis.”
To learn more about resources and how to support veterans and military families in Howard County, visit: https://www.howardcountymd.gov/veterans-military-families.