Personal challenges inspire Roberto Jimenez to help other veterans and prepare for a career in military social work.

Sometimes when things seem to be at their worst, you find your purpose.

That's how it worked for Roberto Jimenez, a student in Saint Leo University's online one-year advanced standing Master of Social Work program.

A U.S. Army combat veteran with more than 12 years of active-duty service, Roberto is using his life experience – both the trials and the triumphs – to assist other vets at times when they need it most.

Recovery leads to desire to help others

Roberto's military service took him to three different combat zones – Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan – difficult deployments that eventually took their toll on his body and his spirit. He suffered multiple injuries. When he reached a point of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion, Roberto entered an inpatient, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) recovery program called the Warrior Transition Battalion (WTB).

As he recovered from his injuries and surgeries, Roberto met with a case manager and clinical social workers who were also veterans. Those interactions, during some of the most difficult times in his life, inspired him to pursue a career in social work so that he would be able to offer the same assistance to other vets.

"You go through a lot when you serve in the armed forces. I want to help fellow veterans as much as I can – to let them know that even though recovery is not easy, it can be done," he says.

Roberto didn't waste any time getting started. While still with the WTB program, he began working with the Soldier and Family Assistance Center, assisting active-duty service members with their applications for insurance and disability benefits. He was touched by the gratitude he received, and that validated his plans to do more. "It showed me how important offering help is, no matter what form it takes."

Transitioning to civilian life, social work studies

Roberto retired from the military and moved from Hawaii to Tampa, Florida with his wife, and their three children. He admits that the first year of civilian life was challenging, but once they all fell into a new family routine, he was able to focus on his education to advance his career.

Roberto earned an associate degree from a local community college and then completed a bachelor's degree in social work with Saint Leo two years later. Currently working on his master's, he is pursing the Saint Leo's military social work track, working directly with military families and learning about best practices.

He's also doing research, something he was never a fan of until recently.

"There were times when I thought I'd rather go back to a combat zone than do research, but now it's one of the things I enjoy doing the most."

The online coursework for the program has required Roberto to make some adjustments to his learning style. He says that as a result of a traumatic brain injury he suffered during his military service, he needs extra time to review and digest all the requirements for each course. While he prefers meeting with professors face-to-face to do that, with faculty in remote locations, it's not always an option.

But he's not letting that stop him. Instead, he's viewing it as just one more experience he can convey to his fellow vets.

Connecting with fellow veterans

Roberto is currently serving as a work-study student for the Pasco County Vet Center. He helps combat veterans and their families find local resources, including coordinating appointments with representatives from Disabled American Veterans, a nonprofit charity that provides a lifetime of support for veterans.

Recently, Roberto volunteered with the county's annual Stand Down in Pasco. A grassroots, community-based intervention that program that helps homeless veterans manage life on the streets, the three-day event provides these veterans with a broad range of highly needed services, such as free dental cleaning, haircuts, showers and informational resources.

"It's all about helping these vets get back on track. Because of what I've seen in life, I'm able to relate to vets. Just having someone who can connect on their level can make a big difference," Roberto says.

Both at school and in the community, Roberto is active in multiple organizations focused on veterans' issues. At Saint Leo, he is a member of the Student Veterans of America – a national organization that enables military students an opportunity to connect with peers who have been through similar experiences.  He is also a member of SALUTE Veterans National Honor Society, an alumnus of the Wounded Warrior Project, and is active in Team Red, White and Blue and in Hope for the Warriors.

Looking toward the future

Moving forward, when Roberto completes his MSW degree, he would like to work primarily with combat vets in an environment like the Pasco County Vet Center. He also plans to continue helping researchers understand more about PTSD and TBI – he's part of studies being conducted through Tampa's VA hospital and through the U.S. Air Force that track and analyze veterans going through these experiences.

Through it all, Roberto will continue to look for ways to help his fellow veterans in every way he possibly can. 

"I feel a connection to military social work that keeps drawing me deeper and deeper into this field. I love connecting to fellow veterans, and I look forward to working with them and influencing their lives in a positive ways."

Image credits: Billion Photos on Shutterstock; courtesy Roberto Jimenez and Mary Martinez-Drovie