Lance Cpl. Luis Ocasio, 36, does not come from a family of first responders. In fact, as the sole member of his family to serve in the Armed Forces, his decision on Sept. 11, 2001 to join the Marines nearly ended his marriage.
But that was a risk he was willing to take to do something he said he had to do, and his wife eventually went along with it.
“My heart sank,” Ocasio said, describing how he felt watching airplanes crash into the twin towers of the World Trade Center on that day. “The next day I just got up, I started planning out my future.”
Raised in Humboldt Park on the northwest side of Chicago, Ocasio said even though he was a troubled teen, he always wanted to go into the Marines. But he says he had to jump through a few hoops to serve his country.
“They didn’t want to take me because I was out of shape. I had to lose 50 pounds,” the Evergreen Park resident explained. He said it took him about 50 days to lose the weight, and on the last day, he signed up.
“I wanted to be in the middle of everything,” he said.
And he was. On his first tour of duty, from 2004 to 2005, he was assigned to a mortar platoon and traveled the so-called “Triangle of Death,” an area just south of Baghdad.
But his life changed forever one day when he volunteered himself and a friend to get the mail for his platoon.
“Usually that’s when the insurgents figured out that we were out there,” Ocasio said.
In a moment, “everybody started yelling, ‘Incoming!’” he said.
A mortar exploded above the troops’ heads, leaving them dazed and confused, running inside the barracks.
As a result, Ocasio left Iraq with a traumatic brain injury. After his second tour of duty, from 2007 to 2008, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and he found out that a cyst had caused seizures and migraines since his first injury. Now Ocasio has anxiety attacks whenever he’s around large crowds. It’s something he can’t ignore, and it was an issue when he was
“I was kind of hesitant to go to the game because of the crowd,” he said.
“I was a mess. The other Army gentlemen noticed I was jittery, but my daughter (11-year-old Paige) held my hand the whole time.”
At each Blackhawks home game there is an active-duty member of the Armed Forces and a veteran in attendance during the singing of the national anthem. Ocasio heard he was recommended through the Heat for Heroes program, which helped provide a new furnace and the repair of Ocasio’s air-conditioning unit when he and his family fell on hard times after his second tour. He had to take time off work, because he “started getting flashbacks” from his active duty days.
As if times weren’t hard enough, Ocasio’s wife Alejandra, 34, was diagnosed with cancer in August and had to stop working herself.
“I thought I was going to lose her,” Ocasio said. “I thought I was going to be by myself with my daughter.”
Since then, his wife has recovered and returned to work. The couple hopes to someday adopt a child when they’re in a position to do so.
“Right now we’re still trying to get back on our feet, financially,” he said.
Getting a Fresh Start
Ocasio is now using his free time to advance his education. He is studying computer science at DeVry University and is considering a career in systems analysis or cyber security. Although his goal is to press the reset button on his life, a bigger goal is to “get used to being around other people” again and find a company that’s willing to take someone with his condition.
It Takes Patience
Having a family member with PTSD or any other conditions resulting from time in war can be tough, and Ocasio urges families to “have a lot of patience.”
“I have a lot of family members who say, ‘You’ll be fine.’ I used to get that all the time, but I told them, ‘You just don’t understand what’s going on in our heads.’”
In turn, Ocasio said the soldiers should also take extra precautions before re-entering their civilian lives.
“The soldiers need to know that they can’t go full force with the wives, so we have to be patient ourselves,” he said.
Although Ocasio went through a traumatic experience, he remains positive and says that it could be worse. He said he feels that it’s his duty to help other soldiers.
“I got to actually help them out and spread the word about the organization, so that other veterans get helped out, too. There are other vets out there worse off than me that need help. I told (the Heat for Heroes organization) that anytime they need help, let me know.”
Ocasio’s display of bravery, honor and willingness to serve others is something he hopes to pass onto his daughter someday. But for now, family nights at home are all the sporting events he needs.