From survivor to mentor: Veteran shares her journey
Purple Heart recipient Marlene Rodriguez overcame trauma and despair by embracing sports, fitness, and faith. Now she mentors and brings hope to other veterans.
A decade after she nearly died in combat, Marlene Rodriguez now scales mountains, scores runs in baseball games, does powerlift training, feeds the needy in homeless shelters, and volunteers to help other military veterans recover from the wounds of war.
The Army veteran has made her own recovery through the years, surviving the traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder she suffered when her convoy truck was attacked in Iraq. Though badly wounded, Rodriguez escaped the fiery wreckage, rescued a fellow soldier, and fired at the enemy as she helped him to safety.
She later received the Purple Heart for her injuries — making her one of only 500 women ever to receive the honor. It was the second attack she had survived as an Army staff sergeant and vehicle operator. Earlier, she lost a fellow soldier and one of her closest friends. His memory motivated her as she worked to overcome her physical and emotional scars, Rodriguez said.
“I know I suffer from survivor’s guilt because I lost my first soldier, and it just hurt so much,” she said. “Now I carry him everywhere, like he’s sort of my angel, you know? So if I’m climbing a mountain, playing baseball, or doing anything fitness, it’s like I’m taking him with me.”
From wounded warrior to mentor
In her transformation from wounded warrior to community volunteer and mentor to other veterans, Rodriguez has embraced athletics, exercise, and faith to help in her healing. She got involved with sports-related nonprofits such as Heroes Sports and Fairways for Warriors that support veterans and their transition back into civilian life.
Through baseball, golf, and other exercise, Rodriguez said she found herself again and emerged from “a very dark place” after her injuries. Regaining her confidence and purpose, she began to share it with others as a friend and mentor. Today, she volunteers in that capacity with nearly a half-dozen organizations that helped her along the way.
“I just want to give back to others because so many people have done that for me,” she said. “The things I learned changed me so completely. Now I know that just because I have injuries or disabilities, and am no longer in the military, I still have a purpose and I can help others. It makes all the difference.”
Soft-spoken, but powerful, Rodriguez has grown into a leader among other veterans, and they look to her for encouragement, said Mike Barker, a physical therapist and founder of Heroes Sports in San Antonio, where Rodriguez lives.
“It has been great to see her blossom since she first came aboard years ago,” he said. “Now she’s a big reason our organization has grown so fast. She’s a hard worker, she’s good at networking and bringing others in, and she leads by example. She’s shown you can push through the struggles of life and overcome great obstacles.”
Charlie Lira, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran in San Antonio, said Rodriguez reached out and befriended him the first time he came to a Heroes Sports baseball game. Her friendship has helped change his life, said Lira, who struggled with PTSD and other war-related complications — experiences that Rodriguez could understand.
“I was having a real hard time, but ever since then, she’s just been there for me,” he said. “Just knowing anytime I’m having problems I can call or text her and talk about them, that has made the difference for me. She’s just amazing, a real good-hearted person who helps others just because she really want to do it. She helped me in so many ways, with my job, even my marriage. She’s been great for my life.”
On the verge of being homeless
Four years ago, Rodriguez learned about Military Warriors Support Foundation, or MWSF, through the Wounded Warrior Battalion at Fort Carson, Colorado. MWSF is a nonprofit that works with Wells Fargo in a program that provides mortgage-free homes to combat-wounded veterans. After she went back to college to earn her degree, Rodriguez was awarded a home in 2015. It was a godsend, she said, because she was behind on her rent and close to being evicted from her apartment.
“When I first got out of the military, I was struggling financially and couldn’t afford a home to live in,” she said. “I also felt really unworthy, that I didn’t deserve something big like a home. So it took a lot for me to apply to that program. Eventually, it was a last resort because I was on the verge of being homeless.”
After receiving the home, Rodriguez also benefited from three years of family and financial mentoring through MWSF. She is debt-free now and only an internship away from getting a bachelor’s degree in recreational administration from Texas State University.
“I guess you could say I’m living the American dream now,” she said. “It sure has changed my life in so many ways. Since I don’t worry about financial stress, it is amazing to me how much more there is to life.”
In addition to the financial mentoring program, Rodriguez participated in hunting, fishing, sports, and a variety of other foundation-sponsored activities, said Casey Kinser, executive vice president of the Military Warriors Support Foundation.
“It has been awesome getting to spend time with Marlene over the years,” she said. “I had the opportunity to be there when she received the keys to her house and to go on some outdoor adventures with her. It’s been great to be able to support her not only in her transition to being a homeowner, but through all these other amazing accomplishments that she has taken on.”
Fulfilling key priorities
For Wells Fargo, Rodriguez’s story spotlights some of the company’s highest priorities — supporting veterans, communities, and nonprofits, said Rullah Price, a senior vice president and community outreach director for Wells Fargo Home Lending.
“Through the mortgage-free home program, we are grateful to have played a role in helping her overcome adversity and become a leader in her community,” she said. “It embodies the highest goals of Wells Fargo’s commitment to and investment in people.”
Since becoming a homeowner, Rodriguez has not slowed down in her volunteer work, sports, and outdoors activities. If anything, she does more now than before, most recently training to hike mountains with other veterans in the nonprofit Purple Hearts Summits program.
She also landed an internship this year with the Catch a Lift Fund, a Maryland-based nonprofit that helps combat-wounded veterans nationwide recover and rehabilitate physically and mentally through physical fitness, motivation, and support.
Rodriguez initially began the program as a participant, focusing on weight training, powerlifting, and other fitness work. But her ability to build a rapport with and encourage other veterans made her an excellent candidate for the internship, said Lynn Coffland, Catch a Lift’s founder.
“When Marlene started with us, she appeared to be just very quiet and preferred to stand in the background,” she said. “But when you get to know her, you really see the kind of deep, caring, and strong person that she is. Her ability to share her own experiences and her work in school with adaptive physical therapy will make her an extraordinary addition to our staff.”
Working with other disabled veterans, many of whom have much more severe injuries than hers, has helped her keep perspective on her life, Rodriguez said.
“Now I have a good friend who is a triple amputee, and another, who is a double amputee,” she said. “Those guys are my heroes. They have pushed through so much and they never, ever gave up. They inspire me to keep being the best that I can be for them.”