When Victor Sierra talked about boxing with his son the excitement in his voice betrayed his stoic, unsmiling face.
“I take him to the gym,” he said, sliding two fingers on his phone’s screen to pull up photos. The boy pictured is eight. His face is almost completely swallowed by protective headgear. His tiny fists are wrapped with black gloves, his face compressed in a cute scowl.
“I told him to try to look scary,” said Victor. “I try to work out with him often. But he’s getting older, so he’s getting lazy.”
Near the birth of his son in 2005, a 34-year-old Victor moonlighted as a bartender when a friend approached him with the possibility of an Army career. “I was at the gym when he told me he was talking to a recruiter. I was kind of between jobs. And I was bored.”
Wanting more stability for his growing family, Victor joined and went off to Fort Leonard Wood for Basic Combat Training. After that, it was off to Arizona to learn the ins and outs of intelligence analysis.
“People would always make fun of my name,” said Victor, referring to the phonetic alphabet the military uses to spell out titles and codes. Victor is for the corresponding V, Sierra for S.
“A drill sergeant saw my name once and gave me a look, like, ‘For real?’” He smiled, a rarity for the slight yet imposing Jersey native.
He was shortly deployed to Mosul for what was supposed to be a year’s mission. “Then President Bush started the surge. In the first 12 months, we only lost two guys. Not bad,” Victor became quiet. “But then we stayed longer, and more people died. There were IEDs, snipers. More IEDs than anything else.”
Victor was attached to the 1st Striker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, out of Ft. Lewis, Washington. His job as an intelligence analyst was to gather information for mission standards. Vital facts like which roads were clear, and which roads were ‘black,’ or not checked or patrolled for traps and explosives.
“One day there was a lot of traffic coming out of the check point. The convoy had to move—the longer you stay in one place, the more chances are you’re going to get hit. So they went on a black road,” Victor took out a pen and drew a simple sketch of the path, somewhere near the forward operating base in Baquba. “They rolled over a bomb, must’ve been right under the belly of the striker.”
The resulting explosion literally tore the striker in half. Eight soldiers died, as well as one Russian reporter who was embedded with the unit. Only the driver survived.
“I would go out [on patrols] every now and then. But after that, after seeing that striker torn in half, I didn’t want to go out anymore,” He scribbled large, angry circles over the sketch, crossing out the makeshift map of Iraqi road.
Baquba was a bad place to be in 2007. It was the enemy’s home turf. As part of the surge, 1st Striker Brigade was basically being asked to set up shop in the enemy’s backyard. There were more combatants, more weapons caches, more IEDs, more car bombs.
If Mosul was hot, Baquba was like the surface of the sun. In the next year, Victor was flying back to his home at Ft. Lewis. 20 soldiers from his unit did not return alive.
Victor wanted to join Special Forces, and was preparing for his second deployment with a military intelligence unit in 2010. He injured his back, an event that would drive him to be medically discharged later that year. At 40, Victor Sierra had to start over again. He returned to New York.
“I went to DeVry University for computer networking. I wanted to focus on school for a while, on myself,” he recalled. The new family Victor had returned to was one person fewer: His young wife had filed for divorce during his two-year tour. “I couldn’t sign the papers until I came back. I was a little messed up.”
On a whim, Victor registered with Workforce1, New York City’s employment assistance program. Sharp Decisions, a technology firm in NYC, recruited him from Workforce1 into the second cycle of their special training program for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.
“It’s good. You have people around you with the same experiences and it makes you feel comfortable.” Victor said, stating he often shared stories and has since befriended multiple people at Sharp Decisions.
With his new career in full swing, Victor has time to focus on what’s most important. He continues to spar with his son at their local ring. “I use the focus mitts with him,” he said, nodding at his son’s picture with pride. “He’s getting stronger.”
Victor was part of a team that was deployed to EmblemHealth as a quality assurance tester.