When Marlene Rodriguez enlisted in the Army in 2003, the 23-year-old thought she’d figured out the rest of her life. Her father was a sheriff in California who taught her to fish, explore the outdoors, and serve others. Sitting behind a desk from 9-to-5 was out of the question, and putting herself in the line of fire to defend her community was embedded in her DNA.
“I think it’s the greatest honor in the world to protect the country and the flag,” said Rodriguez. “It was a life career for me. I wanted to do it forever.”
But Rodriguez’s military career came to a crashing halt when a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) careened into the side of her vehicle in 2007, leaving her with a traumatic brain injury that forced her into medical retirement the next year. Lost without her identity as a soldier, secluding herself indoors as she suffered up to 12 seizures a day, it wasn’t until a friend convinced her to join a veterans-only kayaking trip down Idaho’s Salmon River in 2014 that Rodriguez was able to rediscover a sense of purpose similar to what she’d felt in the Iraqi desert. After reconnecting with nature, her community and herself, Rodriguez embarked on a new path of service: Helping veterans heal their own emotional and physical wounds through recreational therapy.
Finding Purpose In The Desert
Rodriguez was sent to the Middle East just 12 days after getting her first duty station as a part of Operation Iraqi Freedom’s first push, serving alongside a company that quickly became family. Immediately embracing her identity as a soldier, she excelled on the field and quickly rose in the ranks. In four years, she went from serving at an E1 status as a private — driving trucks containing anything from weapons to hazardous material to people — to an E6 military classification as a staff sergeant commanding a truck envoy and four soldiers.
Although Rodriguez abstractly understood the dangers she and her soldiers faced traversing Iraqi roadways, sometimes crossing active enemy lines, it wasn’t tangible she lost an 18-year-old driver who had become a close friend to an IED during her second deployment in 2005. And even then, there wasn’t time to reflect.
“You still have a mission,” said Rodriguez, who has the name of her deceased driver tattooed on her leg and stitched into the passenger side headrest of her truck, always riding along with her even now. “You can’t stop. You’re out there for a reason.”
With less than three months at home between deployments, Rodriguez didn’t fully process her loss and said the fear “we’re going to get blown up, we’re going to get blown up” played in her head over and over again during her third tour. “Then when it happened [in 2007], all I could think about was, ‘Nobody’s going to die on my watch again.’”
And then it happened again: Her envoy was hit with an RPG and pelted with enemy fire. After flinging her body over her driver’s to protect him from the gunfire, Rodriguez didn’t remember until waking up in a military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany after being in a medically induced coma for seven days, asking if he was okay. Although her driver only suffered a dislocated elbow, Rodriguez sustained a traumatic brain injury that led to epilepsy.
“It took me a long time to realize I couldn’t be a soldier anymore,” said Rodriguez, who became one of 500 women to ever receive a Purple Heart. “I couldn’t get it through my head that that career was over. And I struggled with that. It put me in a really bad depressive state.”
Though out of the warzone, Rodriguez was still fighting physical battles against uncontrollable seizures and mental battles against anger and depression, a seemingly unending loop about the friends and life that she lost played on repeat in her head. Even individual and group therapy didn’t feel helpful and, in some of her darkest moments, Rodriguez would resort to self-harm. “I felt like it would never end,” she said. “So for me, the alternative was to just not be alive anymore.”
Thankfully a concerned (and persistent) friend was able to pull Rodriguez out of her thought cycle and isolation by convincing her to sign up for a five-day kayaking trip for female veterans.
“I thought that I couldn’t really do anything outside of just being at home because of my seizures were uncontrolled, so going on a whitewater rafting trip was not normal for me,” Rodriguez said. “But my friend kept hounding me, hounding me, hounding me, hounding me. And I finally just applied for the trip.”
She didn’t expect it to change her life.
Finding Purpose On The Water
Although Rodriguez had grown up exploring the outdoors, the first thing she felt upon arriving at Idaho’s pristine Salmon River was fear. Just like she replayed the fear of getting hit by an RPG during her third tour in Iraq, she replayed the image of losing control of her body and water and drowning.
Even though her seizures had become more manageable over the years and the trip was supervised by trained leaders, Rodriguez refused to get on a kayak and watched the other female veterans go down rapids for hours from the safety and solitude of the large boat that carried the group’s equipment. The hours became a day. And one day became two.
“Then finally, three days into the trip, I was like, ‘You know what? I got to do something. I’m not going to stay on this boat,’” Rodriguez said. “So I got on a kayak, and that one kayak changed my life.”
She didn’t seize when she got on the water. She didn’t drown. Rather, Rodriguez put her oar in the water and propelled her body forward. “It was like freedom all over again. It was like being born again, I guess. It was like I woke up.”
Once the cycle of self-doubt had been broken, Rodriguez progressed to being more adventurous on the water.
“Once I went down the rapids, it was like it just opened me up to everything,” Rodriguez said. “I started communicating with everyone. I realized that I wasn’t the only one that was dealing with the depression and injuries. Everybody in that group felt the same way I did, so I wasn’t alone anymore.”
Slowly but surely, Rodriguez began regaining the sense of camaraderie and autonomy she’d feared she’d lost.
Finding A New Way To Serve
On her last night in Idaho, Rodriguez asked the group leaders how they got on the trip.
“When they told me they’re recreation therapists, I’d never heard anything like that before,” she said. “So I researched it and found out there was a school in Texas that could train me [in the field]. From that day forward... I told myself that I want to be the person that they were because it made me feel like a person again, and I wanted to impact as many people possible to have that feeling that I did because I know how much it changed my life.”
With the help of the Wounded Warrior Project, Rodriguez moved to Texas to receive her associate’s degree from Northwest Vista College in 2015 and received her bachelor’s degree in recreational therapy from Texas State University in 2019.
Determined to help other veterans find new pathways to healing like she had on that trip down the Salmon River, Rodriguez is now an outdoors program manager for the Military Warriors Support Foundation’s Skills For Life division.
“What we do is we take them out on outings — hunting, fishing, hiking, family outings — and let them experience the outdoors to try to get them mentally stable,” said Rodriguez.
Rodriguez also began opening herself up to other venues of service, finding camaraderie again when she applied to become the first female officer of the San Diego’s Military Order of the Purple Heart, in which Purple Heart recipients donate their time and efforts to help brothers and sisters in arms who are adjusting back to civilian life.
“It’s just like being in a unit again,” she said. “We have a commander; we have a treasurer; there’s rank structure. We do functions like volunteering and raising money for different things, like if they need help to pay bills.”
Sometimes Rodriguez’s volunteer work and job as a recreational therapist overlap, like on a recent hunting trip of all-female Purple Heart recipients at Purple Heart Ranch in Texas. While it might have looked like a vacation to friends and family on social media, Rodriguez saw the impact her dedicated work had on a former Air Force medic on the trip.
“She had seen a lot of action [in war]… so her biggest fear was seeing the blood,” Rodriguez said. The woman was shocked when the act of shooting a gun or the sight of blood didn’t trigger traumatic combat memories like she was afraid it would. Knowing that she didn’t just leave the trip unscathed but having a good time helped alleviate her general anxiety. “She thanked me and told me, ‘I’d be comfortable with doing this again.’”
But the participants aren’t the only ones who find catharsis in these trips — they help Rodriguez’s healing process, too. Of course she still has her bad days. But now, seizure-free for the last three-and-a-half years with a job she loves, they are far outnumbered by the good days.
“I would beat myself up because I thought I was the only one that was having these dark thoughts, or dark worries,” Rodriguez said. “So I’d like to let [other injured warriors] know that they’re not alone, and there’s help out there. All they have to do is ask.”
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.
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