From zero to hero: Texas Marine overcomes homeless childhood

Posted: August 18, 2011 in Uncategorized
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Story and photo by Cpl. Adam Leyendecker

Lance Cpl. John J. Garcia, a turret gunner for 3rd Platoon, Company C, 1st Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment, and native of Harlingen, Texas, poses for a photo at Camp Leatherneck, Helmand province, following a patrol. Garcia overcame his difficult childhood, including nine years of homeless living, to earn a high school degree, complete three and a half years of college and is wrapping up his first tour in Afghanistan.

CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan – At age 10 many children are busy learning at elementary school. However, one boy was already on his own during a typical day, trying to sell candy for more than the original price so he could buy food. Many times kids from the school would come by and make fun of him and throw rocks.

One day, the boy thought he had managed to outrun the bullies chasing him. As he tried to board a bus, he felt a smash to the back of his head and he fell to the pavement with a throbbing pain in the back of his skull and a huge rock lying next to him. After a moment on the ground the boy managed to get to his feet and he walked miles to the nearest hospital because he had no other form of transportation.

Upon arriving at the hospital, a nurse began patched him up. However, after being treated, the physicians asked him where his parents were so someone could sign the bill.

Abandoned, the boy replied, “They’re in the lobby. I’ll go and get them.” The boy slipped out the door and returned to the streets.

Now 23 years old, Lance Cpl. John J. Garcia, turret gunner for 3rd Platoon, Company C, 1st Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment, said he has encountered many situations like these which literally tested his will to survive. After being abandoned by his mother and losing his father to suicide, Garcia was forced to grow up on his own at age six. He ran with gangs from an early age so he would be provided security, and sometimes stole food after going days without eating anything.

“You were a part of the pack, but you were still a lone wolf,” said Garcia. “I could never trust anybody. It was a helpless feeling on a daily basis, because everyone I met would eventually betray me because they were all individuals at the end of the day.”

For the next nine years, Garcia bounced around on the streets, going wherever work or safety would take him. During periods when he couldn’t find food, he or the people who lived with him on the streets would go into convenience stores and distract the clerks while others stole food. He lived anywhere he could feel safe, usually in abandoned homes.

At eight years old Garcia was already working jobs for small amounts of money. He would find jobs as a handyman for construction workers, changing tires or cutting lawns. When there wasn’t work, he would buy food with whatever money he had and then try to sell it on the streets for profit.

Through much of his childhood, Garcia educated himself whenever the opportunity presented itself. On the streets, the opportunity didn’t come often, he said.

“If you were alone you might get mugged,” he said. “If you looked at somebody the wrong way you could get beaten. If you fell asleep for too long you could get robbed and then mugged. There were nights where I couldn’t find a home to sleep in. I had many lonely nights sleeping outside.”

At age 15, Garcia’s life changed. He moved in with his uncle, Charles Lee, who would become the most influential person in his life.

When Garcia’s mother first became pregnant with Garcia, Lee tried to influence her not to have the child. Ironically, he would later call Garcia “son.” He said his uncle became a father figure and only real sense of family he had ever known.

When Garcia moved in with his uncle, it was the first full year of his life he was able to live in one place. Lee, a former military pilot who served in World War II, taught Garcia the value of knowledge.

“He gave me the love of a father,” said Garcia. “He loved helping people and he was an intelligent man who could’ve done anything with his life. He spoke seven languages, and was a professor toward the end of his life because he wanted to share with the rest of the world the gift of knowledge.”

Through his uncle, Garcia learned his rights as a citizen of the United States. He learned he had a right to an education and a right to a place to live.

Eventually conflict between Garcia and his family forced him to move out on his own again – although he remained close to his aunt and uncle.

After leaving his uncle’s house, he began attending high school while living in a series of foster homes.

In many of these homes, the parents only seemed to care about the paycheck but ultimately it provided him some stability so he could follow his uncle’s advice and continue his education, he said.

In Texas, 15 percent of foster students finish high school and only two percent go on to graduate from college, according to the Preparation for Adult Living Program. Many of the foster kids Garcia knew who didn’t complete high school ended up dead or in jail, he said.

Garcia didn’t want to become another number or statistic eventually earned his high school diploma.

By being a foster child and a high school graduate, Garcia was presented with a rare opportunity. Under the Preparation for Adult Living Program, foster children who complete high school are eligible for college scholarships. Garcia received a letter from Texas Gov. Rick Perry complete with a tuition fee waiver and free schooling for college in the state of Texas.

During this time Garcia also served as a motivational speaker, even speaking at an engagement with author Antwone Fisher, who also grew up as a foster child before joining the Navy to escape homelessness and a troubled past.

During his three and a half years of college at the University of Texas-Pan American, Garcia studied psychology. After college he took a new direction in his life and enlisted in the United States Marine Corps, and though he could have become an officer with his education, Garcia said he wanted to experience the work and life of an enlisted Marine.

During boot camp Garcia was different from many of the other recruits who had families and loved ones back home. Garcia had been independent since he was six years old. He had no family growing up.

Unlike some recruits who go through tough times during basic training, Garcia was relatively happy because he always had a meal to eat and a place to sleep. Being treated like a recruit was the only real challenge of boot camp because he had been living independent his whole life, he said.

“The thing I treasure most from boot camp is during the crucible, when everyone reaches the top of that mountain and we are all tired and have tears running down our faces because we reached the pinnacle together,” said Garcia. “It made me realize the opportunity I had to be amongst men who are all volunteers to protect a greater good. Nowhere in the civilian sector will you get that. I was proud that I found a group of people who valued a greater good more than themselves.”

In February, Garcia deployed to Afghanistan with the Corpus Christi-based Company C, 1st Battalion, 23rd Marines.

Despite being on his first deployment, Garcia already knew what it was like to be in an environment where stress is constant. He embraced the tour as an opportunity to learn more.

“Garcia is hard as nails,” said 1st Sgt. David M. Dyess, company first sergeant for Company C. “It could be raining outside during the night and Garcia will be sleeping in it while everyone else is trying to find ways to stay dry.”

On one patrol shortly after Company C arrived in Helmand province, a local Afghan approached the platoon to tell them his son had been killed by an improvised explosive device. The father said he wasn’t very upset because his child had died doing his job, collecting metal so he could sell it and help provide food for his family.

“This was an example to me about how much faith means to the Afghan people,” said Garcia. “They revolve their entire lives, everything that they do, around faith.”

Now nearing the end of his deployment, Garcia said he hopes to continue to pursue the education his uncle emphasized to him when he was younger. He also plans to pursue other military occupations or perhaps try out for a place in Marine Corps special operations command.

Through all of Garcia’s rough encounters, he has found ways to push on when others might have quit. The lesson he’s learned is everyone should appreciate the little things in life, he said.

“It sounds clichéd, but you don’t know what you have until you’ve lost it,” he reflected. “People don’t really understand what they have until they experience survival.”

“Am I going to have food? Am I going to have a place to sleep?” These are questions Garcia has had to ask himself for much of his life.

“People need to appreciate what they have, even if it’s just each other,” he said, adding that he is saving money for the family he hopes to raise one day.

“The number one thing I value now is the family I will have in the future,” he concluded. “It’s crazy, but I love the idea of one day having my own family, wife and children. I want to make my future children proud, and become somebody worthy of love.”

More photos here.

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