Purple Heart Day Has Personal Meaning for Rutgers–Camden Graduate

By Tom McLaughlin

In time-honored tradition, Purple Heart Day will be celebrated on Tuesday, Aug. 7, throughout the United States to commemorate the brave veterans who have been wounded or died in battle.

For one Rutgers University–Camden graduate, the day has added significance, as it’s a reminder of the wounds that he sustained, but, likewise, the obstacles that he has overcome to serve as a source of encouragement and support for other veterans.

Lester Orellana, a 2013 graduate of Rutgers–Camden with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, was serving with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division in the Iraq War when he was wounded by an improvised explosive device (IED).

But the Purple Heart recipient would battle back against his physical and emotional challenges to serve today as a finance administrator technician for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in the Philadelphia regional office.

“In today’s world, we use the word ‘hero’ loosely, but Lester is a hero and a role model for all Americans,” says Fred Davis, director for the Office of Military and Veterans Affairs at Rutgers–Camden, the first higher-education institution in the state to be designated a Purple Heart University for its service to veterans and their families by the Military Order of the Purple Heart.

In October 2006, Orellana recalls, he was on patrol looking for IEDs south of Baghdad. As he scanned the area, he looked out of his window and saw copper wire.

“Before I could say ‘IEDs,’ it exploded where I was sitting,” recalls the Philadelphia resident.

While his memory is still hazy about what happened next, Orellana remembers bleeding from a gash just above his right eye. He stood up and felt an excruciating pain. Anger kicked in.

“I realized that I was fine, but my back hurt so bad that I couldn’t move,” he recalls.

Fortunately for Orellana, a medic was in his vehicle and tended to his injuries. After his unit sustained small-arms fire and mortars for four hours, he was transported back to the base, where they confirmed what he already knew: he had suffered a traumatic brain injury, in addition to extensive damage to his shoulder and his lower back.

With only two months left on his tour, Orellana was told that he could return home, but promptly declined. A few weeks later, three of his comrades were killed by an IED on the same route on which he had been wounded. Orellana took the news hard, and begged his commander to allow him to return to his mission for the final month that he was deployed.

“I couldn’t just sit there; I needed to go out on the mission,” he says. “I was in a lot of pain, but I sucked it up.”

When Orellana returned to the United States, it was a different story altogether. Riving in pain, he struggled to complete routine, everyday tasks. It became a chore just to bend over and tie his shoe. Taking a shower became an excruciating challenge. Stationed at Fort Campbell, Tx., he was then assigned to the Wounded Warrior Transition Unit in Fort Hood, Tx., and began a daily regimen of physical therapy and pain management.

On a personal level, Orellana had to deal with lingering anger issues as well. Forced to retire in 2009, he found it difficult to make the transition from the military to civilian life.

“My life had always consisted of getting up and doing something,” he recalls. “Suddenly, I was in so much pain, I couldn’t do anything.”

Little by little, Orellana found the strength to move forward. He attended counseling sessions at a local VA hospital and enrolled at a nearby community college, Central Texas College, to take advantage of his post-9/11 GI Bill benefits. In 2011, he continued his education at Rutgers–Camden.

“Over time, I started to turn my life around,” he says.

At Rutgers–Camden, Orellana found much-needed assistance from the Office of Military and Veterans Affairs, and comfort and camaraderie from his fellow veterans.

Orellana with Fred Davis and Tina Mikes when he and Mikes were named Outstanding Student Veterans of the Year for 2012

“Rutgers University–Camden has an amazing veteran support service, which is very vital for those transitioning from active duty to civilian life,” he says. “The support that I received at Rutgers–Camden helped to alleviate a lot of the stress that comes with that transition.”

He also became active in the Rutgers–Camden Student Veterans Association, and was soon helping other student veterans adjust to classes and civilian life.

Orellana later graduated from the Philadelphia Police Academy and is proud to continue assisting his fellow veterans in the Veterans Affairs regional office.

“Being a veteran and working for the VA gives you a sense of pride,” says Orellana. “The fact that I get to help other veterans means the world to me.”

Moreover, the Philadelphia resident is proud that Rutgers–Camden has been named a Purple Heart University, a designation that he believes is well deserved.

“Having Rutgers–Camden named a Purple Heart University is a great honor and gives me another sense of pride for my alma mater,” he says. “There is a lot of assistance available at the university to help veterans achieve their academic goals.”

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