MJN Spotlight: David Ortiz

Sergeant David Ortiz (MSW) joined the Army Active Reserves in 2008. At 31 years old, he considered himself older than a typical person joining the armed forces. But David wanted to go back to school. He thought the benefits from being in the army would be a great way for him to pay for his education. After a discussion with his wife, he decided to enlist.

Although David knew he would be deployed, he “didn’t know he would go so soon.” In 2010, he was sent to Iraq along with the 883rd Combat Stress Control as a Behavioral Health Specialist. Behavioral Health Specialists are known as the techs for the psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers. They are trained in all disciplines and have knowledge in pharmacology, testing and individual therapy, although they do not oversee the overall treatment. In 2011, David returned to the reserves in Puerto Rico after 10 months in Iraq. He had finished his bachelors online while deployed, and began working on his masters in Social Work using his military benefits.

The GI Bill was crucial for his ability to continue his education. “It was easy to use,” David said. “It helped me out because I’m a father of four children and I’m married, so not having to go into student loans and paying out of pocket was a big boost for me as a father and a family man.” This year, David was able to get an additional certification in clinical social work. “Having a good education is priceless,” he said.

His transition out of deployment was different than it is for many veterans in the United States because of where David lives. “Here in Puerto Rico, it’s a little different,” he said. “In the US, there’s a little more patriotism I guess. There’s not that much fanfare coming back [in Puerto Rico].” For David, one of the most difficult things upon his return was going to a job with people who had not been in the military. “Going back to work and not having people who experienced the same thing, people who can actually relate to you, was probably the toughest thing for me,” he said.

As of now, David is in a transitional period as far as his social work career. He is currently working in a hotel in guest services, and is trying to transfer the skills he learned there to social work.

There have been instances where his social work skills and military experiences have helped him relate to his customers. On one occasion, he noticed a combat patch on the backpack of a man who entered the hotel with his family. David told the man that he had worked with that unit in Iraq, and mentioned that he was a behavioral health specialist. “[The man] told me that he was service connected with the VA, he was battling with PTSD along with several other injuries that he had suffered from his deployment,” David said. After an extensive conversation, David recounted that the man said, “I hadn’t even told my wife about these things, why I am I telling you?” David believes that the man was willing to confide in him because he knew what the man had been through. “Once you have someone who has been through a similar experience, it is easier to talk about,” he said. “They can relate to me and I can relate to them.”

Out of the military, David is working on reducing the stigmas attached to mental illnesses resulting from service. “I want to keep on communicating with people, trying to get away from all those stigmas related to behavioral health and raising awareness for PTSD and other conditions that soldiers face when they come back from a conflict,” David said. Although his until was still called Combat Stress Control, he said the military is trying to eliminate words with certain stigmas, like stress, mental, etc.

David would advise any service member coming back from deployment not to rush into anything. “The biggest advice I’d give them is to take it slow,” he said. “When you come back, there are so many things that have changed. Not only in your life but your family’s life.” In order to prioritize mental health, David said it is important to take it day by day. “Don’t rush into things,” Ortiz said. “That’s when anxiety and frustration start to manifest.”

Having a group of people who have experienced the same thing is also crucial for adjustment back to civilian life. “Have a support group, have those people who actually understand what you went through,” David said. “Staying connected with the people you went with is very beneficial, staying grounded and connected.” David himself had two friends from Puerto Rico who also went to Iraq. They often get together to talk about what they went through.

David wants to use his background in behavioral health and experience in the military to continue to work with veterans. “One of the things that made me want to work with veterans is that I can be relatable,” David said. “I have been where you have been.”