For most wounded warriors, coming home is only the beginning. Convoys to Computers, a tech training program in Balboa Park helps pave the rocky road to reentry back into mainstream living.
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What Ryan Elder wanted most in this life was to be a Marine. At 19, the future he saw for himself came in a 20-year slice of time: he’d do his bit, he’d make officer. He’d cycle out with a pension and half his life in front of him. What would happen after that wasn’t exactly clear, but college figured somewhere in his plans. He was thinking that maybe he’d like to pursue his lifelong passion of philosophy. He enlisted. Now 23, Elder, originally from Bellingham, Wash., is a long way from that life. He folds his 6-foot-5-inch frame into a chair in Balboa Park’s Hall of Champions. Wearing jeans and a T-shirt, he could use a shave. “That’d been my plan,” he says, looking away, “before all this happened.”
The event that derailed Elder’s dream came on hard and fast during the spring of 2010. He was stationed on Okinawa with the Marine Third Maintenance Battalion. At the time, he’d been involved in the process of working through channels on a report about his company’s morale issues. It involved sit-downs with high-ranking Marines and the pressure was on. Elder stopped sleeping and eating. He paced the barracks compulsively, began drifting in and out of another world. The unit’s master sergeant intervened, finally, and asked this: Was he using drugs? No. He drove Elder to the base hospital. There, doctors told him to drink more water, to get more sleep—the military cure for just about everything.
Instead, Elder got worse. He was confined to the infirmary. Fully delusional at this point, he tried to escape. Hospital personnel darted him with a tranquilizer gun and strapped him to a gurney bound for Balboa Naval Hospital’s Wounded Warrior Battalion West. There, he would spend the remaining year and part of the next attached to the Marine’s Wounded Warrior unit. The final diagnosis? A manic episode, triggered by stress. As a result, Elder was now bi-polar. He was prescribed a long list of daily pills including lithium and Risperdal. They curbed his mood swings, but there was something else going on in Elder’s head that the meds couldn’t touch.
“I had a great sense of guilt. In the Marines, you are conditioned to be mentally tough and to hold your own. When you’re in the hospital for mental health reasons, you end up feeling like a loser.” Elder perceived what he thought of as a measure of disgrace surrounding his hospitalization. He’d never seen a day of combat. His injuries were debilitating, but they were all in his head. “I think the military is getting better at it, but there’s still a stigma of having a mental disorder, particularly being in the Wounded Warrior Battalion,” he says, “surrounded by wounded Marines when I myself wasn’t ‘wounded.’ ” He adds later, “there were some Marines I’d served with who thought I had faked the whole thing in order to get off Okinawa.”
Rich Cherry is an ex-Marine from Buffalo, New York. He saw active duty during the first Iraq War. Post military, Cherry worked as the director of operations at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles and as the CIO/director of facilities at the Guggenheim. He is now the director of the Balboa Park Online Collaborative, a group that provides tech support to 27 different entities within Balboa Park. The BPOC needed staff, but they didn’t have the budget. In the past they’d used interns from Hi Tech High and it had worked out well, “but there was a hospital across the street,” he says, meaning Balboa Naval Hospital. In October 2010, Cherry and his team designed the “From Convoys to Computers” technology internship program. With funding help from the Gary and Mary West Foundation, they tailored the program for wounded warriors.