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Minnesota National Guard
Ruben Rosario: Veteran overcame his demons and now strives to help others

Hector René Matascastillo felt like pinching himself Hard
Here he was, a former US Army Ranger and Minnesota National Guard platoon leader from St Paul, about to take part in a Pentagon-sponsored deployment research panel in Reston, Va He was a grunt in a hotel room full of some of the nation's leading medical and clinical researchers
But he belonged there as much as anyone

So he stood up and started his PowerPoint presentation The first slide began with sobering and staggering data about the suicide rate among combat veterans

"Army, active-duty forces, suicide attempts, 2007: 2,100 (5 per day)," read one entry "Nearly 15% (1382 to be exact) of our Afghanistan and Iraq war losses are as a result of suicide," read another

He wrapped things up with a montage of pictures of some of those Soldiers and asked for a moment of reflection and silence

"You could hear a pin drop," Matascastillo recalled of the session held this month "I wanted people there to put a face to the problem, to the reality that when it comes to fighting mental health issues in the military, it's one veteran at a time"

Matascastillo has tasted some of that despair and darkness Six years ago, he found himself outside his Lakeville home, armed with two unloaded guns, preparing to make the drop on an approaching enemy combatant It turned out to be a Lakeville cop, along with seven other colleagues, guns drawn, who responded to a domestic dispute

Perhaps it was grace or divine intervention that the lead cop was a combat veteran himself who believed Matascastillo's then-wife when she yelled out that her husband was a vet and that the guns were not loaded

The flashback episode did not cost Matascastillo his life But it added a rap sheet and brief jail term to a then-unblemished 18-year military record that included tours in Kosovo and Iraq and numerous decorations Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and other combat-related trauma, he could not find employment for a long time One prospective employer would not hire him, concerned that he could one day "go postal" at his company


"I know PTSD," Matascastillo told me when I first wrote about him two years ago "I have learned to live with it and because I have it, I should not be looked upon as a monster that cannot be productive That's what I want people to know"

They weren't empty words I caught up with him last week to see how he's doing Not bad at all Thanks for asking
The 37-year-old father of four boys (soon to be five — due date July 4, to boot) is a member of the US Department of Defense panel that makes recommendations on promising research grants or projects

He is an in-demand speaker across Minnesota and other states on issues involving veterans He is working steadily now, a specialist with the state's dislocated-worker rapid-response team The unit offers services or retraining opportunities in the event of large-scale layoffs

Not to be outdone is his current wife, Trista, a 16-year military veteran who works for Habitat for Humanity and is the chairwoman of the Minnesota Women Veterans Initiative working group She is also vice chairwoman of the Veterans Advocacy Institute, a new nonprofit that plans to raise public awareness as well as push for policy and legislative changes affecting combat veterans and their families Hector also serves on the board as secretary
"Hector was given a second chance, and he more than made good on it," said Brockton Hunter, a fellow Army veteran and Twin Cities-based criminal defense attorney "He took responsibility for his actions, received the help that he needed and has been giving back to his community ever since"

Hunter says Matascastillo is a "shining example" of a veteran helping to lift the stigma of PTSD in the military
"Hector is a 'warrior's warrior' whose bravery is beyond question," Hunter said "If he can admit that he has struggled with PTSD and received help for it, I believe other veterans will find it easier to do the same"


That's an Army colleague talking What's a Marine's take on this?

"I think that Hector has really found his calling, but I know that he would not be where he is at now without having gone through what he did," said John Baker, a retired Marine gunnery sergeant and Maplewood-based lawyer who also serves with the nonprofit "He now has the credibility to talk to veterans and those that want to learn how to help veterans and service members in the criminal justice system"

Matascastillo also is expected to graduate from Augsburg College in June with a master's degree in social work He did this while working, speaking and performing 800 hours of internship work with fathers with parenting problems and as a clinical therapist at La Familia Guidance Center in St Paul

He applied nearly two months ago to obtain a license with the state's board of social work He knew his criminal record alone could derail those plans But he sent in the paperwork anyway, with a testimonial attached that went into great detail about how he's trying to overcome that horrendous night six years ago

"I know the hell that some men and women of our armed services continue to live in after war and I know what it's like to be there," Matascastillo wrote to the applications committee "It was said to me that you could only lead as far as you have gone

"If you are to go to where they are and bring them back, it's helpful to know the way out," he wrote "I plan on helping others find their way back This license will help me help more with added credibility"

The response arrived in the mail about a week ago

"It said, 'Congratulations,' " said Matascastillo, who added he would now seek clinical therapy work, preferably with veterans "This reconciliation would not have happened if not for that Lakeville officer and the other ones, the (sentencing) judge and others along the way I thank them all and hope I'm doing right by them"


By Rubén Rosario
Updated: 04/24/2010 12:00:16 AM CDT

Rubén Rosario can be reached at 651-228-5454 or rrosario@pioneerpress.com

The Veterans Advocacy Institute Inc has a page on Facebook outlining its mission

To read Rubén Rosario's first column about Hector Matascastillo, go to TwinCitiescom

Article source: http://www.twincities.com/localnews/ci_14950019

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