By Joanna Gardner
“Encountering Mercy” is a series exploring the corporal works of mercy during the Jubilee Year through the lens of the people whose lives exemplify them. In May, the Diocese of Camden focuses on “Shelter the Homeless.” This month’s profiles will highlight examples of those who experience these corporal works of mercy in their daily lives.
Ray Reyes’ life story includes military missions overseas, and dark periods that included struggles with alcohol and homelessness.
“My father and my grandfather were in the military,” Reyes said. “My mom was only going to let me sign up for two years and then she wanted me to go to college or the seminary.”
Chuckling, Reyes says he instead spent the next 25 years in the military.
After basic training he was sent to Germany and in January 1991 he and his best friend volunteered for a new mission with the escalating conflict in Saudi Arabia: Operation Desert Storm. Their tour was to last eight months and Reyes was involved in major battles during the liberation of Kuwait. His friend didn’t make it back.
“Things like PTSD (Posttraumatic Stress Disorder) were not even part of the equation. We felt that it was a moment of weakness at that time. The best treatment for that kind of thing was drinking,” Reyes said.
After that first tour, Reyes was never the same. Back in Europe, he started driving fast cars, taking risks, searching again for the adrenaline rush of combat. After he acted out one too many times, his superiors sent him home and pulled him out of the active Army to join the Army Reserves. It was a dark time for Reyes.
“I didn’t know what to do. I always had been in the military,” Reyes said. “I was terribly depressed. I was still battling the demons of Desert Storm.”
He took the time to turn his life around. He stopped drinking and now proudly says he’s been sober since 1997. He started receiving counseling through Veterans Affairs.
He tried various career paths, but when the opportunity arose to do another overseas tour with the military, he took it. He would do three more tours in the Middle East between 2000 and 2005. His missions included leading chemical teams, searching for weapons of mass destruction during Operation Iraqi Freedom, and searching for terrorists.
In 2005, he was a platoon sergeant leading a team hunting a known terrorist. His platoon was being dropped off by helicopter when a fire fight broke out. The helicopter started to leave while Reyes was still disembarking, suspended by a rope. He fell the rest of the distance to the ground, breaking both of his ankles. He didn’t realize he was injured until the fight subsided, when he went into shock.
“That was the end of my combat career,” he said. But it wasn’t the end of his military career.
He started working in casualties and then taught at Fort Dix. In 2006, he went back to school for broadcast journalism and worked in Army communications. The work took him back to the Middle East for a year of filming. During Hurricane Sandy, he worked with the New Jersey National Guard.
Reyes’ health began to deteriorate. In 2013 his mother died after a long battle with cancer, and in the same year he went on medical leave from the Army. He was back in a dark place, batting PTSD and depression.
But he didn’t stay down for long. He took up driving for Uber to make a living, even becoming a ride sharing advocate in Philadelphia. He often made trips to McGuire Air Force base to give free rides to soldiers and their families.
In 2015 Reyes’ life took a turn for the worse. He had been living in an apartment with his girlfriend, who struggled with addiction, and in September, it led to their eviction. The couple lived out of Reyes’ car for a month. One cold night, the car was robbed. The bandits stole the car’s radio and broke its heater. “I said, ‘I can’t live like this anymore,’” Reyes said.
His girlfriend decided to turn herself in to authorities for a warrant related to her addiction and is now receiving treatment. Reyes turned to the VA for help, who in turn referred him to Catholic Charities.
Over the course of the next several months, Reyes’ caseworker, Randall Clark of Catholic Charities’ Veteran Services program, helped him get back on his feet. Clark helped him get into a shelter for homeless veterans, Volunteers of America’s Home For the Brave, while the two of them worked on his application for housing vouchers through the VA.
In April, Reyes moved into a new apartment with Catholic Charities’ help paying the security deposit. With his housing vouchers, he’ll be able to make rent. The agency helped him repair his car so he could continue driving for Uber.
“When I came back from Germany, it was winter and one day a homeless guy comes up to me and asks for money. He was a Vietnam vet and he didn’t even have any shoes. And it broke my heart. Why? A person who’s been through so much. I did everything I could for him,” Reyes said. “I never wanted to be like that homeless guy with no shoes. Every chance I get I’ll do something for a veteran.”
Barbecue with Veteran Services May 21
Join Catholic Charities for a barbecue with Veteran Services on Saturday, May 21, at 1 p.m. at Saint Peter Church: 43 W. Maple Ave., Merchantville. Rain or shine. More information at CatholicCharitiesCamden.org/Mercy.
The mercy of sheltering the homeless:
In 1995, then Pope John Paul II made his fourth visit to the United States. He celebrated Mass in Baltimore, the last stop of his trip, on October 8. Excerpts of his homily at that Mass appear below.
One hundred thirty years ago, President Abraham Lincoln asked whether a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” could “long endure”. President Lincoln’s question is no less a question for the present generation of Americans. Democracy cannot be sustained without a shared commitment to certain moral truths about the human person and human community. The basic question before a democratic society is: “how ought we to live together?” In seeking an answer to this question, can society exclude moral truth and moral reasoning? Can the Biblical wisdom which played such a formative part in the very founding of your country be excluded from that debate? …
Every generation of Americans needs to know that freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.