When Nick Lopez returned from his tour of duty to Iraq in 2009, he found it very difficult to find work. Using his post-9/11 G.I. Bill stipend as a paycheck, he did other work with clients he had accumulated through his IT company. It didn’t pay much and there were months with no work. By February 2013, his stipend was finished and he had to dip into his life savings just to pay rent and keep the lights on. He was going broke.
After months of searching for IT jobs, even with his military background in technology, fixing phones and radios and uploading encryption into those devices, Lopez struggled to find a job to support his family.
That’s when he found Sharp Decisions and their new V.E.T.S.™ (Vocations, Education and Training for Service members) Program.
“I didn’t really have a job and just went to school from 2010 through 2012,” Lopez said. “It was really frustrating not getting some of these jobs because I knew I was qualified. Sharp Decisions saved my behind a little bit.”
But getting to Sharp Decisions almost never happened for Lopez. During his third tour of duty, in Iraq from 2008-2009, Lopez was assigned to haul fuel. His job was to find fuel, purify it and then make it ready for use in vehicles and airplanes. He often found himself in the middle of a convoy under fire with fuel tanks on his truck.
“It was very nerve wracking having 2,500 gallons of fuel on the truck and people firing at you,” Lopez said. “While it was happening I wasn’t nervous, but I was when we got back because then it dawned on me that I was getting fired at and the truck could’ve exploded at any time. Some people freak out, though, and you just have to tell them that everything is okay, it’s indirect fire and the convoy is still moving.”
But one specific moment changed Lopez. His base camp faced a rocket attack from insurgents masquerading as farmers. They took mortars and put them in the dirt, put up a block of ice and a round on top and left. Three hours later, when the ice melted and they were long gone, the rocket shot into the camp.
During this attack, the rockets hit the living quarters, with one rocket blowing up 50 meters from his head. No one was seriously injured, but Lopez was taken to a hospital for a potential concussion. Even with no permanent damage, the injury left him with what Lopez says is a mild case of PTSD.
“I had a really big ringing noise in my head so they took an MRI and CT Scan,” Lopez said. “I get a lot of headaches now and take these pills to help with that. I didn’t want to claim anything from the VA because I didn’t feel like it was affecting me. It was worse at the beginning because I could never be in movie theaters and I always had to sit with my back to the wall to keep a look out.
“I used to be really anxious in the dark and thought I was seeing shapes because it was really dark where I was and you always had to be careful of people sneaking up on you,” Lopez said. “I sleep fine now, but it still affects me a little bit. Like sometimes I can’t be with a really large group because I get really panicky and loud noises still spook me a little bit too.”
But now that Lopez works for the V.E.T.S.™ Program, he says he couldn’t see himself anywhere else and he loves working for Sharp Decisions CEO Karen Ross.
“I really care about this program and I don’t mind doing the extra stuff because I’d do anything to help this program succeed. It was a lifesaver for me,” Lopez said. “In a way, Karen is doing what a 1st Sergeant would do for their soldier. They always act tough on the exterior, but when they identify you have a problem, they take you under their wing and mentor you. Karen is taking care of us and I’m glad that she cares. It’s scary for a lot of soldiers because they aren’t used to civilian work like this on a corporate level where you can talk if you want to. But having that open door policy with Karen is a big, big help.”
Lopez was part of the deployment to one of the client sites as a quality assurance tester.