After 15 months serving Iraq, Raymond Morua returned to Southern California only to discover that his battles were far from over.
Morua, who served in the Army’s 1st Armored Division in Iraq, had helped to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime in the early years of the war. He was only 23 when he returned home to Ventura after that tour of duty.
Although a hero in combat, Morua grappled with readjusting, and alcohol became a coping mechanism. When one family member remarked that the young man seemed to be struggling to survive, it struck a deep and melancholy chord in Morua.
“I operated tanks and flew helicopters,” he told a group of veterans gathered Friday for a monthly veterans lunch at the Santa Barbara Elks Club. “I conquered a nation. To be told I was struggling to survive in a nation I worked to protect was very difficult.”
Making that transition a little less difficult for younger veterans coming home from Afghanistan and Iraq is at the center of Morua’s life now. He spoke about the nonprofit organization he’s forming to do just that. It’s called At Ease! and aims to connect veterans with the community as well as to sync them up with resources.
One veteran commits suicide every 80 minutes, and the Santa Barbara community has not been immune from veteran deaths. Morua recently attended the memorial for Jeffrey Nancarrow, who police say was a troubled Iraq War veteran who struggled with post-traumatic stress syndrome before his body was found last month.
Morua also spoke of a vet friend who, after two suicide attempts, finally succeeded in taking his own life.
“He couldn’t get a job. Wal-Mart wouldn’t hire him,” he said. “He needed someone to walk him through that, but there was no one there, and he just couldn’t handle it.”
Morua is finding that the biggest battle is convincing young vets to join any sort of veterans organization, which was also true in his own life.
When he first returned, Morua didn’t talk about his military service at all. He started school at UCSB, and at first resisted getting involved with the UCSB veterans group, but eventually became very active.
Many vets would rather be left alone, but Morua said that keeping them in the community allows them to become productive, and helps them resist the temptation of substance abuse.
“It’s a waste of a good resource, and all of these young women and men are extremely capable,” he said.
Art Peterson, a veteran who fought at Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, took the mic for a few minutes after Morua spoke, and recounted his experience of returning to life after the war.
There was little support for veterans then, he said, and “nobody told me anything.”
He recalled walking into a downtown Santa Barbara veterans affairs office, where an employee took a ruler out of his desk to measure Peterson’s wounds. The man determined that Peterson would qualify for 10 percent disability, but he qualifies for 80 percent today.
“You have a lot of people willing to help you,” Peterson said to the younger veterans in the audience. “Don’t miss that opportunity.”