Vincent Acevedo will always remember where he was and what he was doing on August 25, 2006.
“I was an explosives handler in the U.S. Marine Corps, on assignment in Iraq,” he says. “We’d taken over an insurgent stronghold right outside the city of Ramadi, about 65 miles west of Baghdad.”
Acevedo and his buddies were bunked down in a house that night when the blast from a rocket-propelled grenade hurled him through a wall.
“Thankfully, I’m in one piece,” he says quietly. “I had all my gear on, and that saved my life.”
A long way from Ramadi
In a larger sense, Acevedo saved his own life. In 2010, the year after his discharge from military service, he returned to BMCC, where he’d first enrolled in 2003 at age 18.
"My sister was the first person in my family to go to college and I guess I wanted to follow in her footsteps,” he says. “But I felt a more compelling urge to pursue a career in the military, so I left school to enlist in the Marines. I thought I would try that first and then, if college was in my future, I could go back.”
In time, he did make it back: This June, he’ll graduate with an Associates Degree in Criminal Justice and a 3.94 GPA, and in the fall he’ll begin working toward his bachelor's degree at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
But the journey from that terrible night in Ramadi has been anything but smooth.
Seemingly recovered from his injuries, Acevedo remained in the Marines for the next three years, serving tours of duty in Africa, Saudi Arabia and, finally, in New York at the United Nations. Then things got complicated.
“I’d suffered what was diagnosed as a mild traumatic brain injury,” Acevedo says. “The thing about that type of injury is that the symptoms may go away for a while only to come back later.”
In the immediate aftermath of the Ramadi attack, he’d experienced some loss of consciousness and short-term memory glitches, but then he improved.
Later, after feeling ill in New York, he was hospitalized—first at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, near Washington, D.C., then at the Marine Corps’s Warrior Strengthening program in Barstow, California, and ultimately at the Navy’s Wounded Warrior program in Bethesda, Maryland.
Recovery through repetition
Over the course of his treatment, Acevedo went through what is known as cognitive rehabilitation—a process of relearning the language and functional skills compromised by his injury.
“It’s still hard for me sometimes to remember certain words or put sentences together,” he says. “Repetition is key to recovery, and I work at it every day.” In class, he records lectures and discussions with a tape recorder and listens to them at home, over and over.
Acevedo was also treated for PTSD—post-traumatic stress disorder. “It’s not uncommon,” he says. “A lot of us come back from overseas and find we have problems adjusting to civilian life. You’re dealing with some difficult things—the guilt, the lost lives. Being an explosives handler is hard. You want to save the world—or save your friends...”
He pauses. “The Warrior Strengthening program involved some intensive PTSD treatment, along with helping me deal with the normal challenges of life and put things back together.”
As his recovery progressed, Acevedo knew there was one thing he needed to do: Go back to BMCC and pick up where he’d left off.
“I think of the brain as a muscle that has to be constantly trained,” he says. “I needed to get my mind right again; I needed to get back to classes. There was no way I was just going to sit around.”
Support from faculty and family
He chose the right place to resume his studies. “My professors at BMCC have been incredibly supportive,” he says. “They’ve given me extra time on assignments and tests and been totally accommodating and understanding.” But Acevedo isn’t looking for breaks.
When he’s not in class, he studies constantly, pushing himself relentlessly, and largely forgoing a social life—at least for now. School, he says, is his main focus.
Jennifer Hernandez, who is program coordinator for CUNY Justice Academy as well as an adjunct faculty in BMCC’s Criminal Justice Program, recalls her first meeting with Acevedo.
“He was in my Policing 201 course and came up to me after class on the first day to talk to me about how he might approach the work over the semester,” she says.
“Every student has a story and I am grateful that Vincent was willing to share his remarkable story so openly with me. He’s an impressive person and a phenomenal student who takes advantage of every opportunity available to him. There’s just something in him that keeps him going forward.”
What keeps him going, Acevedo says, is his family. “They’ve been there for me all the time. I can’t let them down.” He’s happy to be graduating with a 3.94 GPA, but he’d happier with a 4.0—“and if there was such a thing as 4.2, I’d want to go for that.”
Notwithstanding Acevedo’s interest in criminal justice and law enforcement, his goal now is to become a New York City Firefighter. Once he passes the Firefighter Exam, he knows he’ll be on a two-year waiting list before he has a chance at a job, but he’s fine with that: He’ll use the time to pursue Bachelors’ and graduate degrees in either forensic psychology or criminal justice—and to think about whether firefighting is what he ultimately wants to do.
“Right now it is,” he says. “What I do know is that I love helping people.”