NEW RICHMOND - Most Marines become Marines because a family member was a Marine. Ron Ramos' uncle was a Marine and he played a larger than life role in his life.
“Every time he came home on leave, he would come to New York to visit us. I always saw him in his uniform, so I knew I always wanted to be a Marine. I knew full on what I was getting myself into and I wanted it,” Ramos of Star Prairie recalls.
He taught Ramos the value of discipline at an early age. They used to play a game called the electric chair. Ramos would squat in a sitting position with his back against the wall but no chair, no support, with hands out. Then his uncle would pile on one encyclopedia at a time.
Ramos’ dream became reality with boot camp at Parris Island, S.C., in 2005. Basic training is where you learn the proud history of the Corps, its customs and courtesies, how to handle an M16 and how to issue first aid. It is where you become your brother’s keeper and understand what is in a Marine’s heart, one team, one fight.
Today, Ramos works as a veterinary assistant at New Richmond Countryside Veterinary Clinic. He attends Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College four days a week studying for his Associate of Science in veterinary nursing. He is half way through the first semester of a two-year program. The Veteran’s Administration pays him a monthly stipend to go to school. He lives in Star Prairie and is helping raise his daughter, Adrianna.
Six years ago, his was a very different story.
President Barack Obama officially began to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan in 2011 with the goal to be out of the country by 2014.
In 2013, Ramos was nearing the end of his second enlistment. His plan was to re-enlist and ask to be deployed to active combat. That September he was instead informed that he would be discharged.
“I had planned to do 20 years,” Ramos said.
He walked through the gates, off the base and into the arms of girlfriend Christine Johnson, a fellow Marine from Baldwin, Wis. She had been discharged three years earlier. They loaded their belongings into a car and headed to San Diego, Calif., where the two had met as Marines five years before.
With his extensive computer and mechanical experience working with helicopters in Iraq and Afghanistan and F16’s in Japan -- and much of the work once handled by U.S. troops now being contracted out to private corporations -- Ramos thought he would be a shoo-in to get a job.
He quickly found out he needed a four-year college degree to be considered.
“I was caught in that grey area, where you have experience but for your particular job, you need a degree. It was not enough to just have experience,” Ramos said.
Ramos enrolled in the culinary arts program at the Art Institute of San Diego. He had grown up cooking with his grandfather. Two ex-Marines getting paid to go to school in California, life wasn’t bad on the surface.
Eventually Ramos found out it was not just any degree that would land a job. Without maintenance or inspection qualifications from the Marines, which Ramos did not have, it was aeronautical degrees that were landing the jobs.
“I hit a lot of road blocks no matter what job I applied for, McDonald's, Walmart it didn’t matter. Either people weren’t looking to hire at the time or I got a lot of, ‘You’re overqualified.’ That really frustrated me. How can you be overqualified to wash dishes?” Ramos said.
Life outside the Corps was becoming more challenging for Ramos. As simple as it sounds, he was not used to paying bills, shopping for groceries, and there was no clear chain of command, on the outside, everyday decisions were debated.
“I had just started going to the VA and doing a little bit of therapy. I was having issues adjusting to a normal life routine because I was so used to being overseas. I didn’t have to worry about anything overseas. I wasn’t accustomed to paying bills, fixing meals, grocery shopping. Just dealing with people not in a military way was a big adjustment. At school, it was my first time dealing with 18-to-19-year-olds who were not in the military. Sometimes I screamed at them like I was a Marine. I couldn’t do that anymore,” said Ramos.
Ramos’ adjustment issues stemmed from his deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. He lived about 20 minutes from where his former units were based in San Diego, so he saw helicopters all the time.
“Sometimes I would hear a helicopter and I would get anxious, tense up, get a little hyper vigilant,” Ramos recalled.
His therapist recommended prolonged exposure therapy, believing more exposure to the triggers would eventually desensitize him and lessen his anxiety. That ended up exasperating the issues .
“I couldn’t concentrate. I started missing school, which meant I wasn’t getting paid any more. Then I found out my girlfriend was pregnant. She dropped out of school due to some problem between the VA and her school so she wasn’t getting paid anymore either. I got behind on the bills and started drinking heavily. I stopped paying my rent. It was all too much. I was aware of what was going on but it didn’t matter. It got to the point where we became homeless,” Ramos said.
They packed up our car with what they needed and drove with 5-month-old Adriana to Wisconsin.
Upon arriving in WI, Christine’s mother and step dad offer to let the three of them stay in Christine’s old room.
“They helped out as best they could, but the terms were, we couldn’t stay there, not long term,” said Ramos.
Ramos got set up with a case worker through the VA in Minneapolis who was an ex-Marine, which made Ramos feel more comfortable; the worker understood what he was going through. Ramos applied to the Veteran’s Affairs Supportive Housing program, but eventually learned that he could not get a voucher for Minnesota while he lived in Wisconsin. He could move and give up his housing or stay in Wisconsin and start a relationship with the VA here. The problem was the nearest Wisconsin VA Center is two-hour drive away.
Ramos’ case worker introduced him to Dale Koch, the St. Croix County Veterans Service officer, and also recommended that Ramos join a veterans organization to hold him over until he could find a steady job.
“He sent me here to the VFW. That’s when I met Dave Green. I was able to bring my daughter and girlfriend with and they welcomed the entire family. It was fantastic,” Ramos said of the New Richmond VFW.
Slowly but surely, Ramos began to put his life back together. He took over production of the Post’s newsletter. His first event to cover, The Moving Wall in 2015.
Meanwhile, Koch was working on Ramos’ VA claim and was able to get disability payments started to provide the beginning of financial stability.
“I started having less intrusive thoughts. I woke up not dreading the day ahead. I was interacting with my daughter a little bit more," Ramos said. . "I still wasn’t sleeping the best and I was still looking for a job, but I felt more comfortable looking for a job, putting myself out there. And I found camaraderie here at the VFW."
Not enough veterans reach out for the mental health care they are entitled to, the VA says. Even for those who do reach out, organizations like the VFW and American Legion can play an essential role in helping veterans cope with the weight of their service.
“It’s the camaraderie of knowing that you don’t have to speak about it. I know Dave understands what I’m going through. I know Mitch Kline, my Quartermaster, he understands what I am going through and vice versa. If I need somebody to talk to, even if it’s 2 o’clock in the morning, I can all him up and he’s not going to argue with me. He’s going to sit there until everything is okay,” Ramos said.
Life is began to reward Ramos' perseverance. In 2016, Ramos was hired as a receptionist at a veterinary clinic just around the corner from Christine’s parents' house. The doctor valued Ramos’ experience. His willingness to help out quickly led to him having more responsibilities -- cutting nails, restraining animals, and helping run lab tests. A month after starting at the clinic, Ramos was able to rent the house directly behind Christine’s parents' home.
Although the road had not been without its bumps, Ramos is pursuing a career in veterinary science while working at Countryside Veterinary Clinic in New Richmond.
“During one of my deployments in Iraq, we went to a bazaar, a market. Some of the kids came up to us and thanked us for what we were doing over there. Of course then they tried to sell us some stuff, but it was moments like that that were pretty fantastic to see. It made my time there a little bit easier and it made me proud of what I was doing. I accomplished what I joined up for.”