Mark Velez '19 heard the tell-tale thump of the mortar round coming to rest on the other side of the door he was sheltered behind a split second before it exploded, propelling searing shrapnel shards into his chest.
August 10, 2004, began like so many others for the U.S. Marine infantryman. Stationed in Iraq’s Mahmudiyah district since March of that year, Velez and his brothers of the 2nd battalion, 2nd Marines, Golf Company, were on post and patrolling at all hours, their days shaped by routine amidst the uncertainty of war. But on this blisteringly hot August day, everything went sideways in a compound in Latifiyah in the volatile Sunni Triangle.
The New York-born, South Florida-raised teenager was six months into his first tour of duty in Iraq.
‘It was a pretty surreal moment’
Velez was the youngest in his platoon. There is no military service in his family’s background, but Velez admired the Marine ethos and college held no appeal. He signed his military contract as a 17-year-old high school student and shipped off to bootcamp shortly after graduation. After completing his School of Infantry training in Camp Geiger, he and his battalion received their orders: Iraq. “I was ready,” he says. “I knew what I had signed up for.”
On the day he was wounded, Velez and his fellow Marines were running patrols out of the compound’s abandoned schoolhouse, something they had done countless times before. His unit referred to the compound as “Camp Suicide 2” due to the level of danger and constant firefights and attacks. Velez had finished his post and was resting when things heated up. He heard incoming fire and took cover in the split second before the mortar round detonated, understanding what was coming next. “That actually saved me,” he says, “because if I had been standing, the shrapnel would have hit me in my face and neck.” Still, he received wounds to the side and upper portion of his chest not protected by his vest.
Velez landed on all fours after the explosion. “The first thing I did was touch my legs to make sure I still had them, which I did. Then I yelled, ‘Corpsman!’ and they were right there. Doc Rosenberger started working on me immediately. It was a pretty surreal moment because we were still taking fire.” (Hospital Corpsmen are medical personnel to the Navy and Marines.) He credits friend and fellow Marine Jaime Hurtado with helping him remain calm. “I remember he told me, ‘Hey, look at me,’ and then with my digital camera he took a picture of me. He kept talking to me while they worked on me.”
Because the troops were still taking fire, a medivac (air extraction via plane or helicopter) was not an option. Marines from his platoon transported Velez in a convoy (ground transportation) back to the base. At Camp Fallujah – a large compound used by the Marines from 2004-2009 – he was transported via Blackhawk helicopter to Baghdad where his shrapnel was removed. Velez had two friends who were also wounded that day.
It was a lengthy recovery for Velez, who experienced recurring infections in his chest. He stayed in Iraq through the conclusion of his tour that October. He could no longer lift or shoot his rifle because of his chest wounds, but his contributions were still valued.
Once back in the United States, Velez regained his strength. As soon as he was able, he started training for his second tour. By this time, he was one of the more experienced Marines in his platoon. “The younger guys look up to you, and you need to be there for them,” he says. “I have a lot of pride in being a Marine. Some people might not understand, but that second tour was something I just needed to do.”
Velez lost his platoon commander (“that was really tough”) and multiple brothers on his second tour. He watched as one of his friends was wounded multiple times on multiple tours. Velez concluded his second tour without physical injury. At the end of his four-year enlistment, he was honorably discharged from the military.
‘There has to be a purpose to all this’
Back in South Florida, Velez was unsure what to do. He took a job during the day at a law firm and at night as a bouncer. “I had all of this aggression inside of me,” he says. “It was the only thing I knew how to do.” He tried to stay busy and enrolled in an associate’s degree program in criminal justice. He credits the Veterans Administration (VA) and his wife Cindy, whom he met at work, with helping him realize he was capable of more. As his relationship with Cindy blossomed, so did his aspirations.
“I just started thinking there has to be a purpose to all of this,” he says.
Velez got a job with the federal government and moved up the ranks fairly quickly. He wanted more senior opportunities and knew what that meant: He needed to further his education. So the man who once regarded college as “an impossible idea” continued at Miami-Dade College with aspirations of earning a bachelor’s in public administration at FIU. A Purple Heart tuition waiver provided by the State of Florida paid for his Miami-Dade College tuition.
Once at FIU, VetSuccess On-Campus Counselor Marquay Smith from the Office of Veteran and Military Affairs (VMA) recommended VocRehab to Velez. The program is offered by the VA and pays for all tuition and fees to help veterans find and maintain employment by providing education and training. Velez is using the Post 9-11 GI Bill to cover his tuition and fees for the master’s program.
“I am fortunate that my entire education was free of charge to me due to the state and federal programs offered to veterans and Purple Heart recipients,” he says.
Velez speaks highly of the assistance he’s received at FIU’s VMA.
“I still communicate with Mr. Smith at the beginning of each semester,” he says. “He’s on top of coordinating the VA tuition payments and ensures that the required paperwork is submitted to the VA on time.” He also appreciated the veteran’s commencement ceremony the office hosts each semester before FIU’s general graduation. Veterans are presented with a military cord and veteran’s stole to wear at the larger graduation.
Velez is one of approximately 1,000 military-affiliated students at FIU (active duty, reservists, dependents and national guardsmen) and 125 faculty and staff veterans employed at the university.
According to university records, he is one of only three Purple Heart recipients currently enrolled at FIU. (Another Purple Heart recipient graduated two semesters ago.)The Purple Heart is the U.S. military’s oldest military decoration. General George Washington awarded the first purple-colored, heart-shaped badges to soldiers who fought in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. It is bestowed upon those men and women who have been wounded or killed in action with the enemy.
‘I try and do things right’
Today Velez is 36 years old, nearly twice the age he was when he was wounded in Iraq. He and Cindy have been married since 2013. He’s still living his life full-tilt, albeit in a different arena. After earning his bachelor’s in 2019, he entered the executive master’s in public administration program. He’s on track to graduate in December 2021. He says the program’s convenience (online classes during the week and in-person classes at I-75 on weekends) has allowed him to continue working full time at the Miami Immigration Court as a legal administrative specialist where he serves as a judge’s legal assistant. He organizes his office’s Veterans Day celebrations. He’s building a life and career he never imagined as a teenage Marine in Iraq.
Velez says he doesn’t speak often about being a Purple Heart recipient. (“It’s not something that typically comes up in conversation, and I don’t bring it up.”) He gave his Purple Heart medal to his mother. He still keeps in contact with many of his Marine brothers and goes on annual hunting trips with fellow Marines Mark Hayes and John Lichty, “one of my buddies who got hurt the same day I did and then again on his second tour in Iraq.”
He doesn’t take any of it for granted.
“I know how fortunate I am,” he says. “I have a house, a beautiful wife who loves and supports me, a career I enjoy. I try and do things right because not everyone who went over to Iraq got to come back. I guess you could say in a way that I’m trying to honor them through the life I’m living now.”
The FIU Office of Veteran & Military Affairs (VMA) offers services to veterans and military-affiliated students, helping them sort through Veteran Affairs (VA) benefits, offering career support, and connecting students with disability services, counseling resources and veteran scholarships. Earlier this year, the office was awarded a $450,000 grant from the U.S. Office of Post-Secondary Education to establish a center dedicated to supporting veteran students.
The Center of Excellence for Veteran Student Success will be staffed with an interdisciplinary team who will address the academic, financial, physical and social needs of the veteran and military-affiliated students at FIU. The center will offer comprehensive services to enhance veteran students’ college experience, assist veteran students in overcoming challenges while acclimating to university life, and increase veteran students’ graduation rates at FIU.
FIU received the 2021-2022 Military Friendly School designation, ranking No. 7 among Tier 1 research institutions. That follows the office’s 2020 Colleges of Distinction Military Support Recognition award and ranking as a 2020 Top School for Veterans by U.S. Veterans Magazine.
If you are a veteran, FIU’s Office of Veteran & Military Affairs stands ready to assist you. The office is located at MMC in TWR 100. Please call 305-348-2838 or send an email to email@example.com.