NORWALK — City officials and residents honored America’s veterans for their service to the country Nov. 11, while two speakers told of their difficulties in rejoining civilian life after their service.
“I landed in a ‘psych.’ ward. I felt broken,” said former U.S. Petty Officer Fernando Lopez after leaving the Navy, where he served for five years. Lopez was unable to find work after he left the service. He is now a Norwalk business owner.
“I was proud to serve my country but after leaving the Army in 2007 I was angry at everyone and took everything personally,” said former signal support systems specialist Andy Morales, a Whittier resident who served in the Army for nine years, had three deployments to trouble spots in the Middle East and received numerous medals for his actions.
Finding suitable jobs was a main problem for both, they said. Both joined the military after graduation from high school at 18. They said they are now working to help other veterans with similar issues.
The two veterans said they pulled themselves together with support from their families, community members and organizations.
One such organization is Courage Forward, a regional nonprofit group which offers support networks for veterans that include resources for housing, job training and job placement.
“Once the veteran is able and stable, he or she will use their experiences where at-promise youth unite with veterans to find purpose together; forming unique tribes in which courage forward become a way of life,” the organization’s website states.
Downey business owner Moises Rios Hernandez, a principal in the group, was called up for honors by Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, a guest at the Norwalk program.
“Thank you for your service,” said Garcia, who noted that veterans who have experienced post service issues are in the best position to help others with similar problems because “they have a better understanding of the needs of the (veteran’s) community.”
She noted that more than one million veterans in California have “a variety of needs such as jobs, housing, medical care and college tuition.” She said such help is available in various state programs and urged veterans to make contact if they need help.
Lopez said he was the first in his family to join the military and was deployed to the Middle East.
“It was tough to get into civilian life and get a job after he told possible employers he wanted to get a college education and go back into the military,” he said.
He said veterans and possible employers should realize that military service teaches a person discipline and to focus, both good job traits.
Choking up in his speech, Lopez thanked his family and community members for their support as he obtained a college degree and opened a Norwalk business.
“I found that my service was no longer needed in the military but in my community. I want to give back to my community and help veterans get jobs,” Lopez said.
Recalling his experiences in Korea, Germany and Iraq, Morales said “nothing prepares you for seeing your buddies get [injured] but you continue to do your job.”
Morales received a number of commendations, including the Purple Heart, given to those injured in the line of duty.
“We came home with things in our heads, psychological and mental,” he said.
Because of trouble finding work, (Morales notes he left the service just as the nation’s economy “took a dump”) “I felt I was a failure as a father.”
He then decided that if he wanted to help others, he had to help himself first.
“I needed to get healthy and regain my energy,” said Morales, who took the advice of a friend and joined a fitness program.
“As soon as I enrolled my energy skyrocketed,” he said praising the fitness program, where he has been a health coach since 2018. Through that program he came in contact with those with similar problems, including many veterans.
“Whatever trouble they had, you do one thing and it opens the door to another. It’s people wanting to serve each other. I want to be there for you, share your stories,” said Morales, urging veterans with problems to “reach out to someone.”
“We are a city that wants to honor and respect its military community. We would not be here if not for their service,” Norwalk Mayor Margarita Rios said during her remarks.
Other participants were Vice Mayor Luigi Vernola and City Council members Jennifer Perez and Leonard Shryock; American Legion Post 359 Past Commander Wayne Carrigan, Bradley Schoep, Sons of the American Legion; and Becky Bullard, Ladies Auxiliary American Legion Post 359.
Council members honored three “hometown heroes” by presenting them or their families with banners which had been displayed on the city’s main streets during the past year.
They were Jerry Contreras, U.S. Navy; Nathanial N. Robles, U.S. Marines; and Jacob A. Godinez, U.S. Army.
Music was provided by the Norwalk All-City Band, directed by Frank Hinojoz. Presenting and retrieving colors were the all-female Color Guard from the Southeast Academy in Norwalk and Legion Post 359 Color Guard.
By Arnold Adler