JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas –
(Editor's Note: The story below contains descriptions of physical and sexual abuse that may be upsetting to some readers.)
Sgt. Maj. Rafael Colon Hernandez, assistant chief of staff of medical at U.S. Army South, sat proudly in his office decorated with awards, coins and memorabilia from his more than 29 years of total service in the U.S. Army.
Behind the pride of his honorable service, he reflected on countless moments of abuse, neglect, racism and combat-related trauma he had to overcome throughout his life.
“It’s hard to talk about all of this sometimes, you know,” said Colon reflecting on his sessions in behavioral health. “It feels like you’re peeling back the layers of a scar, but it’s also a massive weight lifted off your shoulders.”
He wasn’t born with a resilient character, Colon forged it through a desire to serve others, do better than his parents and seek a better life for himself and his future family.
Colon was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and grew up in the town of Trujillo Alto. A year after his birth, his sister was born with Down syndrome, a condition caused by a chromosomal abnormality and characterized by physical and developmental disabilities.
“The doctors in Puerto Rico told my parents they didn’t think she would survive more than two weeks,” Colon said. “So, my parents decided to uproot and move to Boston to get her better care.”
Colon said the diagnosis caused his parents, a stay-at-home mom and a Vietnam War veteran working as a mailman, to put more parenting focus on his sister. Consequently, Colon was given very little attention.
That, coupled with his father’s undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder from his time fighting in Vietnam, led to an unsteady household.
“My dad was very emotionally unstable, so whenever he would get mad at a situation he would just pick up our stuff and relocate back to Puerto Rico,” he explained. “We did that at least three or four times.”
The constant relocation was only the tip of the iceberg when it came to the emotional trauma he experienced. Colon’s neglect, isolation as punishment and physical abuse further destabilized his childhood.
“I always felt like the black sheep of the family,” he said somberly. “My dad was very physical, like he would spank me or throw things at me. If I did something small, like not finishing my meal, I was grounded for a week meaning I wasn’t allowed to leave my room even for family meals or when company came over.”
His unsettling home environment wasn't the only challenge Colon faced. He also experienced various acts of racism against him and his family. His family home in Boston was regularly vandalized and he was treated differently by other children.
During one incident, older children lured Colon and a friend into a constructed snow fort before collapsing the structure, burying them before beating them through the snow. He was in the second grade.
“I had bruises, I was crying and I ran home,” Colon exclaimed. “But when I got home, I got no support from my parents. My mom was very hands off and my dad just told me to toughen up.”
Experiences like these were commonplace for Colon, but his parents did what they could to portray a normal family image.
“It was the veil of the suburbs,” Colon said metaphorically. “But the curtains were closed and nobody could see inside the windows.”
He felt like he grew up in a bubble and lacked experiences that other children had, but he said these struggles created a mechanism for him to block negativity out of his life.
Finally, Colon had enough. At 18 years old, still in high school and living in Puerto Rico, he joined the Army Reserve as a medic.
“I joined because I had the desire to help people and to do something now,” he said passionately. “It kind of relates to my childhood: I waited for a better life, I waited for better treatment for my parents, but I didn't want to wait anymore.”
Still living at home under his authoritative father, Colon moved on to university. But when an opportunity arose for him to transfer components to active duty and escape his parents he seized it, postponing his pursuit of a college degree.
“I went home and told my dad, and the only thing he said was, ‘this is the best decision you can ever make, just leave,'” Colon said. “That was it, so I left.”
The liberation he felt as a young Soldier led to self-exploration, and as Colon navigated through the ebbs and flows of life’s lessons, he settled into a leadership role and became a noncommissioned officer.
The maturity he gained through his experiences caused him to connect better with his Soldiers.
“Unless you’ve lived through certain circumstances, it is hard for a leader to comprehend what the Soldiers are going through,” he stated. “Everything I experienced, the negative and the positive, and the trials and tribulations I have faced really widened my spectrum of understanding of people.”
Although Colon distanced himself from his childhood trauma, the nature of his job as a medic caused him to witness incredibly traumatic events.
Over four combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan and one humanitarian deployment to support relief efforts in the Caribbean after Hurricane Maria, Colon has witnessed and treated injuries ranging from improvised explosive device attacks, mass-casualty events, natural disaster-related injuries and everything in between. These shocking and stressful events have led to Colon being diagnosed with PTSD.
“I’ve had nightmares, vivid nightmares,” he said. “I used to be so affectionate with my wife and my son, but I wasn’t that person anymore.”
Colon said there were also some physical side effects his family pointed out to him.
“My son was three and I told him to stop biting his lip, and he said, ‘but when you get stressed or mad, you bite your lip,’ and I never realized that,” he said with a puzzled look. “I would also raise my voice more than I did before my deployments. I changed.”
Colon decided to look past the perceived mental stigma of other service members seeing a senior NCO walk into a behavioral health clinic.
“My son, my family and the yearning to be more connected to my feelings pushed me to seek mental and behavioral health,” he claimed. “I finally said to myself, ‘Who cares what other people say if they see you walking into behavioral health as a first sergeant or as a sergeant major, this is about you and your family.’”
Behavioral health treatment helped Colon learn coping strategies to deal with the nightmares, thoughts, emotions and actions he was previously unaware of. The therapy and counseling didn’t only treat his traumatic experiences from combat but also uncovered repressed memories from his childhood.
Some of those memories were of sexual abuse from his father.
“Your mental capacity to repress all those super negative, traumatizing experiences is pretty crazy,” he said. “It was a really creepy realization that these aren't just random images in your brain, these actual things actually happened; but also a weight was lifted from being able to talk about stuff like that.”
Addressing his traumatic experiences as a child and unpacking his PTSD from combat with professional help developed Colon into a better leader, built a more cohesive team and became a more responsible husband and father. Through his desire to serve others and break the cycle of intergenerational trauma, he constructed his resiliency.
He realized there are other people who have been through similarly traumatic experiences and expressed the need for Soldiers to open up about their trauma.
“I believe there are a lot of success stories out there like mine. The more military leaders talk about and share those experiences, the more the Department of Defense can focus on service members and try to help us.”
Through personal experience, Colon knows how hard it can be to explore the most agonizing memories, but as a Soldier should, he said you should never accept defeat.
“If you’re deciding whether or not to seek help or you find yourself in a low place with nobody reaching out to you, just get up and try again. Don't be ashamed of failing; just keep pushing forward.”
Colon will continue his service, mentorship and resiliency as Command Sergeant Major and Senior Enlisted Advisor of Public Health Command Atlantic at Fort Meade, Maryland, spring of 2023.
If you or anyone you know is experiencing a behavioral or mental health crisis, dial 988, text 838255, or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net to chat online or see a list of numbers if overseas.