California State University, San Marcos

11/07/2018 | News release | Distributed by Public on 11/07/2018 11:02

Poem, Daughter Help Air Force Vet Tame Turmoil

'I always held myself to a really high standard, and that had a lot to do with the military,' Steven said. 'I thought I had to be the best no matter what I'm going through. I expected perfection. As I was trying to live up to that and the military code, I realized how hard it can be. As I felt like I was falling short in certain areas of my life, I thought I was a screw-up, that I was worthless.'

His inner turmoil grew even worse when he returned from Afghanistan and was transferred to a base in Little Rock, Ark. For his 22nd birthday, he hosted a party at which he provided alcohol to some underage friends, a couple of whom proceeded to get in a fistfight. The group tried to keep the incident quiet, but after Steven's involvement was discovered, he was demoted in rank. Only a week later, his then-girlfriend was sexually assaulted by some of his Air Force friends, and Steven blamed himself because it happened after he had left her alone following an argument.

'That's when I was in a depressive state because I was in trouble and I felt like I had to get out,' he said. 'That was when I wrote the poem.'

Steven requested and was granted a voluntary separation from the Air Force, and he moved back to Oceanside in 2015 to be around his support system of family and old friends. But his suicidal impulses did not abate. Over the next couple of years, he estimates, he tried to kill himself more than half a dozen times, including a few in which he attempted to jump out of a moving car driven by the woman who's now his wife, Gina.

Everything came to a head last Veterans Day. After the memorial service for his friend at MiraCosta, where he was earning two associate degrees, Steven tried to buoy his spirits by playing in his usual weekly football game with fellow veterans. It didn't work. As he was driving to his job as a waiter at a sushi restaurant in Carlsbad, he pulled off into a Home Depot parking lot, where - with a Monster energy drink in one hand and a bummed cigarette in the other - he hatched a plan.

'I felt my heart beating and my face pulsing,' Steven said, 'and I remember thinking to myself, 'OK, here's what I'm going to do. I'm going to go as fast as I can on the freeway, top out, and then slam the brakes and turn the wheel, wait for someone to hit me.''

First, though, he called a veteran friend from the football game, who told Steven just to go to work, that he would come by to talk to him. The friend, Javier Guerra, instead brought the whole football team, and some of them stayed at the restaurant for almost four hours until Steven's shift was over. They told him that not only did he need to seek help, but he also needed to check in with them regularly so they could hold him accountable.

'Making that call saved my life,' said Steven, who wrote another poem titled 'Angels in Disguise' about that night. 'That was the turning point.'

He had gone to therapy before, but now he enrolled in the Veterans Choice Program that would allow him to use an outside doctor rather than endure the long waits through the VA. Traditionally reluctant to try medication for his depression, he broke down and started taking a generic version of Zoloft.

Just as importantly, he grew in his faith, becoming more involved in his church, Grace Church in Oceanside. And, of course, Julianna came along, on Feb. 19.

These days, Steven feels as if he has tamed his mental demons. He married Gina, who graduated from CSUSM with a marketing degree six years ago, in January 2017. He's in his second semester at CSUSM, and with his wife working full-time, he loads up his classes on Mondays so he can help take care of Julianna the rest of the week.

'This girl is my best friend,' he said as he cradled his daughter in his arms during a recent day on campus. 'There's never been a day that I've thought of suicide since she's been here. And I don't see myself ever going back.'