Veterans in ‘Urban Warriors’ seek to help youth

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Jorge Maya and Rafael P. Rodriguez sat across from me one evening last week — the former a 34-year-old Army combat veteran and the other an 18-year-old draftee in Chicago’s street gang wars.

Maya once walked in Rafael’s shoes. The question before us was whether the younger man will ever get an opportunity to walk in Maya’s.

Rafael thinks about that. A lot.

It’s not so much a matter of going into the military service, although he tells me “it would be nice to serve my country” at some point.

What he’d really like is to survive, then serve, his Little Village neighborhood, the same often dangerous place that produced Maya.

“Even if I don’t go [into the military], I’m going to assume I’m a hood veteran,” Rafael said. “It would be a great opportunity. Everybody would like to have a role model.”

The YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago has brought these two “hood veterans” together with others like them and dubbed them Urban Warriors. With Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a common denominator, it has proved a good fit.

Urban Warriors is a mentoring program, one of many in the city but unique in its pairing of military veterans with troubled youth who also know what it’s like to dodge a bullet.

Originally launched as a way to help the younger participants by teaming them with role models to whom they might better relate, it soon became evident the volunteer opportunity was equally beneficial to the veterans — replacing the sense of mission many missed most when they left the service.

“We were in the military. We were part of something big. We were serving a purpose,” said Maya, who added he found his own sense of purpose lacking when he returned to civilian life.

Some days he had trouble getting out of bed. It was an old feeling.

Maya grew up in Little Village, where he was kicked out of Farragut High School.

At age 18 he was shot by a gang member, his brother killed in the same incident. Another brother spent seven years in prison.

Asked if he was a gang member himself, Maya told me: “I hung out with a bunch of them.”

Desperate for a different route out of the neighborhood, Maya first tried to enlist at 22 but his “little bit of a criminal record” held him back.

Six years later, he was accepted. Maya served four years in the Army, including a year in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011 during the U.S. troop surge.

He found he was good at it. After all, he already knew what it was like to come under fire.

Now divorced and the father of two daughters, Maya repairs railroad cars for a living while going to school to learn auto body work. With his crew cut, Bears jacket and low-key demeanor, you would immediately peg him for the squared away guy he has become.

“They’ve seen so much. They’ve done so much,” Maya says of the youthful Urban Warriors. “They have a lot of scars.”

His basic message to them: “There was a point I thought I wasn’t going to amount to anything good. If I can make it, you can, too.”


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