Editor's note: Overseas, they fight for freedom. In America, they fight for jobs. “Voters In America: Vets Wanted?” is the first part of CNN In America's documentary series on American voters. J.R. Martinez narrates the documentary re-airing May 19th at 8 p.m. ET on CNN.
By Sonya Hamasaki, CNN
Los Angeles (CNN) - When Army Master Sergeant Mike Martinez arrived in Saudi Arabia for his first assignment 22 years ago, he knew his experience in the infantry would make him “real tough, tough like nails.” But little did he know back then just how much those words would resonate now, in his new role as a voice for the invisible wounds of war.
Martinez, 42, shared his story in the USO’s first Invisible Wounds public service announcement to address post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries - the masked wounds encountered by many of the 300,000 troops returning home. He’s on a mission to educate Latino troops, in particular, whom he says are likely to feel a cultural stigma surrounding mental health treatment.
“I tell my Hispanic brothers that are still serving, don’t let pride get in the way," Martinez said. "Pride’s going to kill you. Take that warrior mask off and if you need to, get help. Get it in the beginning stages, and not later.”
Even veterans seeking help might not be getting a quick response from those who would care for them, according to an report released by the U.S. Office of Veterans Affairs this week. While the number of former service members seeking mental health care increased by 39% from 2005 to 2010, according to the Veterans Health Administration, the agency hasn't been meetings its goals to evaluate them within 24 hours and begin treatment within two weeks.
Although the Veterans Health Administration's 2011 performance report said 95% of first-time patients received a mental health evaluation within 14 days, it counted the number of days after a scheduled appointment; meanwhile, patients sometimes waited weeks or months for an evaluation appointment.
Staff vacancies might affect the health administration's ability to meet timeliness goals, the report said, although the Veterans Health Administration has increased its mental health staff by 46% from 2005 to 2010. Veterans Affairs announced last week it would hire about 2,000 new mental health professionals to help with the increased demand for services from soldiers like Martinez.
In 2007, during his first tour in Iraq, Martinez’s battalion was hit by an explosive while they were driving through Mosul.
“I couldn’t feel the left side of my face,” he said. “I was pinned with my first purple heart, and my Command Sergeant Major said ‘Hey, we can send you to the rear.’ I said ‘No sir, I can still fight.' And so I chose to stay and fight…but I knew something was wrong.”
He continued to fight in Iraq for two more years, until a bomb split his vehicle in half. This time, the impact nearly killed him.
“I remember calling my wife, saying I didn’t think I was going to make it," he said. "I told her it’s been a good ride, take care of the boys…and I was out.”
When he returned to the United States, he came face to face with an even bigger, personal battle.
“I remember my boys saying, ‘Welcome home.’ I could see them but I couldn’t feel. That’s because of PTSD and traumatic brain injury. I just felt cold,” Martinez said.
Years of rehabilitation followed, and it continues today. But despite the physical drawbacks like headaches, dizziness and delayed speech, Martinez moves forward with service off the battlefield. He’s medically retired, and dedicates himself to helping his Latino “brothers” who might be reluctant to seek treatment.
"When you start getting educated and understand there’s something wrong, get help," he said. "I’m tired of seeing family members who say ‘I don’t have time.’ It takes five minutes.”
The USO’s new PSA campaign on invisible wounds was a platform for Martinez to share his story and his message, he said.
“We were honored to help him when he came off the battlefield,” USO spokesman Frank Thorp said. “Over a period of time, we got to know him well…and it sounded like he wanted to talk about it.”
Talking about his injuries has helped Martinez embrace the healing process, he said, and brought him closer to his fellow soldiers.
“We understand each other. We just want to get better and get back to normal life," he said. "The goal for all of us is just to find peace.”