Having overcome his nearly 18-year battle with posttraumatic stress disorder, student veteran Hector Lopez is ready to help others. He has dedicated his next career to advocacy in support of veterans’ mental health as a motivational speaker.
Lopez was an infantryman in the United States Army from 1997-2005. His final tour of duty: 14 months on the frontlines in Iraq.
All his experience as a soldier until that point still did not prepare him for the carnage he would encounter. “The things I saw there left me scarred,” he said, “not just physically, but emotionally.”
Back home, he tried finding a career suited to his skills, but nothing quite fit.
He considered entering the police academy and “even made it through the entire application process for Customs and Border Patrol,” Lopez recalled, “only to find out they wanted to send me to the desert in Arizona for two years. I couldn’t go back to the desert.”
The anxiety sparked by that suggestion was one of the earliest signs that Lopez was suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder, one of the most common mental health issues affecting veterans. In a recent study published by the National Institutes of Health, researchers in the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs estimated as many as 8 percent of U.S. veterans experience PTSD. The disorder is also associated with elevated risk of multiple psychiatric conditions and suicidal ideation.
Lopez ended up working in nightclubs as a bouncer, eventually opening a small business in security. But the stress of the job only compounded his symptoms of anger, anxiety, depression – symptoms he didn’t yet recognize as PTSD.
Lopez carried on like that for ten years. It wasn’t until he was settling into a serious relationship that he truly began to understand the depth of his suffering.
His girlfriend, now wife, was the first person to look him in the eyes and tell him he had PTSD, after experiencing his nightmares and bouts of crying in the middle of the night firsthand.
“This was the first time that someone I really cared about said [it]. And it shocked me,” Lopez said.
Denial started to set in. “I told myself, ‘No, I’m fine. I’ve been out for ten years.'”
But with a baby on the way, he knew it was time for a change. “The last thing I wanted was to be the person that I was at the moment with my children.”
Even so, Lopez said taking that first step through the V.A. clinic door to talk to a counselor was one of the hardest things he’s ever done.
“I’m a guy who ran into bombs, ran into bullets, and none of that was as scary as it was to admit that I needed help.”
His wife’s unwavering support has been key to his success. The couple began with family therapy, and over the course of several years, Lopez also visited psychologists individually and underwent cognitive behavioral therapy.
“Looking back, I’m so glad I made the choice to get help,” he said. “I’m able to be the man I am today and have the family I have today because of it.”
Lopez believes it’s crucial that veterans try to open up to the people closest to them and to help them understand their pain.
“There’s this mentality that we don’t talk about the things we’ve seen, the things we’ve done. We never let it out, especially to the people closest to us, the ones we love the most, because we’re scared to hurt them,” Lopez said. “But when we bottle things up, eventually we’re going to explode.”
At FIU, Lopez is studying mass communication and aims to use his personal experience to help other veterans overcome their trauma. Classes like public speaking have helped him hone and convey his story in a way that encourages others to see themselves within his narrative.
“I’m blessed to say that I’ve been able to help a number of veterans on a personal level already. Now I hope to be able to expand my audience and reach.”
His first major speaking engagement will take place this weekend in North Miami, where he will be the keynote speaker at a breakfast commemorating Veterans Day.
Lopez is set to graduate in Spring 2024 and is exploring writing a memoir.
Although his healing journey continues with monthly check-ins to the family therapist, he is proud of how far he has come.
“I think about who I was when I started, and now look at me,” he said. “I’m the guy my kids’ preschool calls when they need someone to dress up as Santa Claus!”
Lopez’s story will be featured at FIU’s Annual Veterans Appreciation Breakfast on Monday, November 13, at 9 a.m. Stream the event live via Zoom for free to see him as well as this year’s keynote speaker, Alejandro Villanueva, retired professional football player and decorated U.S. Army veteran. Register online today.