UTRGV’s 2020 military graduates banded together to push each other through the challenges of higher education. The sacrifices they made to serve were honored at a curbside ceremony on May 29, but their stories are ongoing, as is their service.
A shining example of this is Arturo de la Garza, 37, of Brownsville. Last month he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in social work. De la Garza chose the field specifically in relation to his experiences exiting the service after 12 years with a traumatic brain injury, leaving him to navigate an overwhelmed VA benefit system while reintegrating into civilian life.
During that transition, he became aware of the shortcomings of the system.
“What it really boils down to is that there are so many service members leaving the service that the VA is having a hard time taking care of everything. In that transition, a lot of veterans are in limbo. I though of it as a mission for me,” he said.
De la Garza’s path to higher education stemmed from his own research. He began reading regulations and rules pertaining to veteran and family benefits. Through educating himself he was able to assist his peers, eventually realizing he wanted to continue the work professionally. The veteran served three tours in Iraq; the first from 2004 to 2005, a second from 2008 to 2009, and a final tour in 2011.
He sustained concussions, known medically as traumatic brain injuries, as well as some shrapnel wounds. De la Garza described coming to terms with the fact he was now living with a disability.
“Like with anyone else who acquires a disability, it’s really shocking, it’s an eye-opener. One of the big things for me was memory. Learning took a little bit longer and I started noticing. I was playing catch-up,” he said.
“At first, of course, it beats you down. If it weren’t for my family, my wife, my daughter just encouraging me, loving me, and supporting me every single day of the week — they never stopped. They kept pushing me forward.
While at university, De la Garza began working with UTRGV’ s accessibility service office, eventually taking on a work-study position as a student-veteran disability liaison. He also organized a peer-led support group for student service members.
“Once one of us starts falling behind, we try to get them to talk and encourage them to keep moving forward,” he explained.
“One of the biggest contributors of success was having the love of the family as well as being able to fall back on my fellow brothers and sisters already going through the university trenches.”
He encourages community members to reach out to veterans and to not feel afraid to ask them questions.
“And more than that — encourage them to continue their service. Just because we’re out of uniform doesn’t mean our mission has stopped,” he said.
“Now is your time to shine. As army noncommissioned officers, we are always told that wherever we go, we are supposed to leave that place better than we found it. That’s how I encourage my fellow veterans — leave your mark in Brownsville. Whatever you do, do it with pride, do it with love and concern for your community, and you will be successful.”