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Hard Times Lead to Passion to Serve Recovering Service Members

Image of Hard Times Lead to Passion to Serve Recovering Service Members. Martin Del Rio (left) explains the benefits of participating in Education and Employment Initiative and Operation Warfighter during a career fair at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Aug. 17, 2023. Del Rio’s passion for his work is fueled from facing hard times after his return from deployment. (Photo by Cherisse Wells)

For veteran Martin Del Rio, an Education and Employment Initiative and Operation Warfighter regional coordinator, the passion he has for his job and the recovering service members he serves comes directly from the turbulence of his own life experience. Del Rio knows all too well how hard it can be to transition to civilian life after combat without assistance or resources.

Deployment and the Personal Aftermath

Enlisting with the U.S. Army National Guard in 2005, Del Rio was deployed to Iraq in 2008 as a sergeant for the 1-151st Infantry-76th Infantry Brigade Combat Team for his first and only combat tour. It lasted nine months, ending in November 2008.

“My combat tour in Iraq ended at a difficult time—the Great Recession was in full swing. I returned home [to East Chicago, Indiana] to find that making ends meet was a struggle, and I had to work three jobs just to get by,” Del Rio recalled.

Tough times got tougher when, less than a year later, Del Rio’s mother suddenly fell ill and passed away in his arms in September 2009. He said, “Her death, combined with untreated trauma from my tour, left me feeling lost, confused, and deeply depressed. I was unable to function.”

Del Rio shared it was around July 2010 when, “Eventually, I lost everything—my jobs, my vehicle, and my apartment. For the next nine months, I lived under a bridge, just trying to get through each day.”

Still homeless, it wasn’t until spring 2011 that, “with a little help from two unlikely heroes, I began my journey to get back on my feet,” said Del Rio. A church counselor offered an empathetic ear and counsel, and a local YMCA maintenance worker assisted him with his resume and interview preparation during her lunch breaks.

Del Rio soon landed a job that summer paying $25,000 per year. “It wasn't much, but to me, it was a ticket to a new life. I started to rebuild,” he shared.

Once Del Rio regained a roof over his head and a vehicle in October 2011, he began volunteering at local National Guard units and veteran outreach events.

“I would work with the units’ leadership to identify at-risk service members facing issues with homelessness … financial assistance, etc.,” Del Rio explained.

He gave presentations on resiliency, preparedness, and best practices to avoid pitfalls during transition to civilian life.

Del Rio expressed, “It was important to me to prevent them from suffering the same hardships I had faced. It was important that I kept my oath of not leaving anyone behind.”

He continued to volunteer while working and was honorably discharged from the Army National Guard in 2013.

Pathway to a New Career

“Helping others was always a passion of mine, and it was through that passion that I discovered my purpose in life. I'll never forget the day that I saw the job listing for an Army wounded warrior advocate position [in March 2015]. It was as if everything clicked into place, and I knew that I had to apply,” Del Rio shared.

He landed the job and has continued to serve in various veteran support and wounded warrior advocacy roles, expressing, “my passion for serving our nation's wounded warriors, veterans, and their families has only grown stronger.”

Del Rio now uses that passion to serve as an E2I/OWF regional coordinator for the National Capital Region.

About E2I/OWF

Established in 2009, E2I/OWF are two Defense Health Agency and Department of Defense Warrior Care programs that assist wounded, ill, and injured service members with education and career development opportunities and resources as they return to active duty or transition to civilian life.

Education and Employment Initiative assists service members early in the recovery process to identify their skills and match them with the education and career opportunities that will help them successfully transition to civilian life.

Operation Warfighter places recovering service members in internships with federal agencies. OWF offers recovering service members supportive work settings that positively impact their rehabilitation and prepare them to return to active duty or to transition to jobs in the government or private sector.

A regional coordinator since January 2021, Del Rio shared his passion for this job, explaining, “It's about more than just placements; it's about understanding the unique skills, dreams, and challenges of each service member and finding the right fit, whether that's in an internship, training program, or educational setting.”

These staff also build and nurture relationships with military installations, medical centers, educational institutions, federal agencies, etc., and spread awareness of E2I/OWF's value to potential partners and organizations often through workshops, seminars, and one-on-one interactions.

Del Rio also consistently gathers feedback from all sides—service members and partners—to “constantly look for ways to refine and improve our processes, ensuring that our program remains both responsive and effective,” he said.

Bridging the Gap

“When I returned from Iraq, I was not provided with any briefing on resources or support systems to ease my transition back into civilian life as other units had … and it ultimately led to dire consequences. Had I been made aware of any resources, … [it] could have positively impacted my situation and possibly avoided the fallout,” Del Rio shared.

“As a regional coordinator for E2I/OWF, I can't help but feel like I've come full circle,” he said. “At the end of the day, it's a privilege to be able to make a difference in the lives of those who have sacrificed so much for our country.” 

Connect with an E2I/OWF RC or learn more here.

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