USS GUNSTON HALL – Marine Corps Cpl. Adrian Cuevas has experienced the horrors of war and its lasting effects.
Now he wants to spend the rest of his life helping others.
The 27-year-old South El Monte, Calif., native is an Afghanistan veteran on his third deployment there and is currently serving as a machine gun squad leader for Company C, Battalion Landing Team, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit.
Cuevas is a combat veteran who has been in more than a handful of fire fights, been hit by three improvised explosive devices, lost friends in battle, and experienced guilt from being sent home early from deployment.
His story serves as just one of hundreds or perhaps thousands of stories told, and retold, by infantry Marines from his generation. The details may differ -- times, dates, locations, Marines, missions, but the theme remains the same -- something bad followed by something heroic. There is loss, and there is the feeling that nothing will ever quite be the same.
Their stories are amazing and usually resemble a scene from an action movie. According to most Marines who tell them, there is no way to understand what they have been through without having experienced something similar.
Marines who’ve seen combat must contend with recovering from the mental anguish of the battlefield. Many Marines are uncomfortable reliving those events.
Cuevas’ end of active service date is fast approaching and he has decided he wants to dedicate his life to helping people work through that anguish -- the trauma he himself has endured.
“I am going back to school,” he said. “I want to be a counselor to help people out who have gone through what I have gone through.”
Cuevas’s journey into the Marine Corps began like many other Marines -- by meeting a Marine.
After graduating from El Monte Adult School, he spent years working regular jobs. One of his co-workers was a former Marine and prior infantryman who regaled him with stories of his service and Cuevas found himself longing to enlist.
“I felt like it was something I had to do,” he said. “I had already started my adult life and I figured I would do it before I got too old.”
At 24, Cuevas enlisted in the Marine Corps to become an infantryman on March 16, 2009. At Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, he met another Marine who inspired him and shaped his life’s path -- his drill instructor.
“He seemed like he was always squared away,” Cuevas said. “He was really hard on everyone, but fair. He inspired me to choose the machine-gunner path.”
Those decisions ultimately landed Cuevas in harm’s way during a deployment to Afghanistan in 2010. During the deployment, Cuevas said he made it a point to always ride in the lead vehicle.
“I didn’t like to be anywhere else,” he said.
The first time an improvised explosive device struck his convoy was also was the first time he engaged the enemy. The IED detonated three meters away from him and showered him with dirt and debris. While waiting for the wrecker to transport the disabled vehicle, Cuevas and the other Marines began taking fire from a nearby tree line.
The engagement lasted 50 minutes.
“That was the first time I got to shoot back and see them, see the rounds impact and everything,” Cuevas said. “You don’t think at all. Training takes over. It is not something people just say. It really does happen. If you think, you are probably really going to die.”
But that engagement was not the last Cuevas would experience.
The last IED that hit him came at the end of his deployment and destroyed his Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected All-Terrain Vehicle, a large tactical vehicle specifically designed to withstand explosive blasts, and severely injured him. He received the Purple Heart Medal for his injuries.
“It destroyed the whole back end of it [the vehicle],” Cuevas said. “I got launched, I don’t know how high, like 30, 20 feet in the air. I had cuts on my face. I had three compression fractures in my lower back.”
Despite his wounds, Cuevas said he felt guilty from being sent home early because the rest of his unit continued to operate in harm’s way.
“I went through so much guilt,” he said. “From the time I was hurt, wounded, all the way until the time I got back to Camp Lejeune. Really bad depression … I went from having ten other guys, my squad, every day, to being completely by myself in my own room.”
Cuevas said he found comfort in talking to other Marines with similar experiences, and in time, he recovered from his wounds. That comfort, he said, is why Cuevas wants to now spend his life helping others. He intends to use his Post 9/11 GI Bill to earn a bachelor’s degree in behavioral sciences after he completes his enlistment.
“Actually, just talking to people has helped a lot,” he said. “I am not [feeling] as guilty as I was before. A little bit of guilt, but not as much. That’s why I want to help people who have gone through exactly what I went through.”
Cuevas, along with 2,300 other Marines and sailors with the 24th MEU, is presently deployed with the Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group as a theater reserve force for U.S. Central Command and is providing support for maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet area of responsibility.