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Marine veteran Carlos Castillo: Turning pain into purpose
Carlos Castillo remembers Sept. 11, 2001, like it was yesterday. When he heard the news of the terrorist attacks, he was finishing his degree in criminal justice and going through the police academy at Grand Rapids Community College.
But all that would be put on hold. Castillo felt a calling. He joined the Marines.
“My heart and soul wanted to do something about the attacks on our soil,” says Castillo, 43. “I wanted to serve my country and die for it if need be.”
Like his father and uncles before him, Castillo served in the infantry. He would see combat in Fallujah, Iraq, and lose people close to him along the way. Dealing with that loss, and the difficult transition back to civilian life, would test him like nothing he had known.
But it’s during these trying times, he says, when we find out who we really are.
“There's a lot of times where I got knocked down and you just have to find that fight and that drive inside your heart,” he says. “You get back up and you dust yourself off and you get back in there.”
‘How do I move on?”
In 2004, Castillo went to bootcamp in San Diego. Thirteen weeks of “hardcore Marine recruit training” would prove extremely challenging, both physical and mentally. “I wasn’t the biggest or strongest individual,” he says, “so I really had to get myself to where I could perform at the highest level and earn the title United States Marine.”
He earned that title and was sent to Iraq. He spent seven months in Fallujah in 2006-2007 and at one point was assigned to a Military Transition Team, which provided security to the units conducting operations in the city.
“Being pulled away from my unit and placed in another unit had me scared and nervous,” he says. “But we all quickly became brothers and protected each other. We had some of the best times and worst times together. I still keep in contact with many of them.”
Castillo lost several friends in combat, including his best friend. He still wears a bracelet honoring that friend. “That was one of the hardest days of my life — getting that information that he was gone.”
After being honorably discharged in May 2010, Castillo found himself struggling with that loss. A single father, he couldn’t find a good job. He got behind on his mortgage and faced losing his house. Relationships failed. He didn’t know where to turn.
“These stressors in multiple areas were just stacking up,” he says. “I didn’t know how to process what I was feeling — you know, how do I move on with this? The only way that seemed feasible for me was just to end it.”
This part of his journey is understandably difficult for him to talk about, but he wants other veterans to hear his story and learn from it.
“I carried the guilt, shame and blame of my friends’ deaths, and this led my life down a very dark road,” he says. “At the time, I had a son who was three years old. And the thought of him going through life without me … that was the pivot point. I think I was meant to have that wake-up call to say, ‘Hey, this is not what you're supposed to do. Use this experience. Use this pain. Turn this pain into purpose and help others.’”
Passion for serving veterans
Because no one reached out to help connect Castillo to the benefits and resources he earned for his service, he found them on his own. These benefits included emergency aid from the Michigan Veterans Trust Fund, which helped him keep his house, as well as VA health care services and disability compensation.
Castillo started helping his fellow veterans get connected to their earned benefits. His network grew, and eventually he found a new calling. This once-aspiring police officer now works as an outreach specialist for a veteran service provider.
As a Mexican American, Castillo is particularly passionate about connecting with hard-to-reach veteran groups. He attends Hispanic and Latino coalitions and festivals to spread the word about veteran benefits and resources.
“My experience developed something inside of me where I felt like I had to go find those resources for other veterans,” he says. “And I've been doing it ever since. I'm still very passionate about it.”
Personally, Castillo is in a much better place. He’s spent the past year focusing on personal growth and self-awareness. He’s finally sleeping at night and has learned to control the darkness and negative thoughts through healthy outlets such as yoga, meditation and weightlifting. He has two sons, ages 10 and 17, and he’s been mountain biking around Michigan with his youngest. He also hunts, camps and spends as much time as possible on the water.
The intentional approach he takes toward his family, his fellow veterans — his entire life — is marked by the compassion and resiliency born out of his combat and post-combat experiences.
“When I look back, I think, ‘I am resilient. I have been through some really tough, tough times. And I was able to make it.’ And that's one thing I really preach to other veterans. You know, it is hard. It can make you feel like you're defeated, and it can make you feel like you want to give up. But if you don't give up, you're going to be fine.”
Veterans of any age or era — or their dependents — may qualify for federal and state benefits and resources, such as VA health care, mental health services and education and employment assistance. The MVAA serves as the central coordinating point for Michigan veterans to get connected to their earned benefits. Contact us at 1-800-MICH-VET (1-800-642-4838) or visit our website at michigan.gov/mvaa.
If you're a veteran in crisis or concerned about one, contact the Veterans Crisis Line to receive free, confidential support and crisis intervention 24/7/365. Call 988 and press 1, text to 838255 or chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net.