It was just after noon when Salvador Gonzales, known as Sal to his friends, walked into Gracie United Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in Denham Springs. A scruffy beard on his face and square glasses framing his eyes, his back t-shirt has three white block letters printed on the font: WWP.
"In 2003, I joined the United States Marine Corp. A little less than a year later I found myself in Iraq as a machine gunner with the second battalion 5th marines," Gonzalez explained before walking to the mat for some warm up exercises.
"I've just been doing it [jui jitzu] for a little over a year now, and it's a blast. I like it better than anything else now," said the now retired Marine.
While he walks with a limp, Gonzalez's animated talking and dry sense of humor could easily make you overlook the fact that he only has one leg.
"When a normal person looks at me, they think, 'Oh, he's disabled. He's missing a leg.' Honestly, it's a mild inconvenience. It really is," laughed Gonzalez.
Gonzalez lost his leg as the result of a road side explosion two months into his tour in Iraq. He spent a week in a coma, and a year in the hospital recovering and rehabilitating. He said that was the easy part of coming home from war.
"The hard part is getting lost in a bottle of whiskey or trying to fall asleep by drinking yourself to sleep or self-medication," he said.
Luckily, Gonzalez said he found help and support through family and music, and a release through mixed martial arts training.
Gonzalez explained that 15 Marines were killed during his tour and that 10 of those killed in action were from his unit. He said he tries to live every day for them.
"Life is too short not to enjoy every single aspect of it, and frankly, if I was out there drinking myself to death or doing drugs, or doing anything really badly, I would be dishonoring their memory," said Gonzalez.
Now, Gonzalez works with the Wounded Warriors Project, hoping to reach out to other warriors who are struggling.
"They may be home physically, but they're not home mentally," said Gonzalez. "I know what that feels like. I know what it's like driving down the road and crossing four lanes of traffic because there's a piece of trash on the road. I know what that feels like."
By living a healthy and active life, the wounded warrior hopes to show that the worst can be overcome.
"You're not crazy. You have PTSD. You're going through something and it can be overcome. You can live with it. You can go past it and you can better yourself."
Wounded Warriors has a goal "to foster the most successful, well-adjusted generation of wounded service members in our nation's history." The group does this through several support programs address mind, body, economic empowerment and engagement.
Gonzalez will be speaking Saturday at the Louisiana Men's Health Conference. Click here for more information on the conference
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