Photo Information

MARINE CORPS BASE HAWAII - Sgt. Rafael Cervantes Jr., a combat-injured Marine with Wounded Warrior Battalion West-Detachment Hawaii, raises his hand during his re-enlistment ceremony at the Pacific War Memorial aboard Marine Corps Base Hawaii, Aug. 25, 2014. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Suzanna Knotts)

Photo by Cpl. Suzanna Knotts

Reborn through re-enlistment: One Marine's Struggle to stay in

8 Sep 2014 | Cpl. Suzanna Knotts The Official United States Marine Corps Public Website

During a cold night on Jan. 23, 2008 aboard Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, Rafael Cervantes Jr. stepped on the yellow footprints to become a United States Marine. Approximately six years later, Cervantes re-enlisted for the first time during a breezy Hawaiian afternoon at the Pacific War Memorial aboard Marine Corps Base Hawaii, Aug. 25, 2014.

Now a sergeant, his re-enlistment was postponed due to a struggle to stay in after sustaining a combat injury on April 4, 2011, during his second deployment to Afghanistan.

After conducting a house search in Bakwa District, Farah province, Afghanistan, Cpl. Cervantes, a motor transport mechanic with Headquarters and Service Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, took the wheel of a mine-resistant ambush-protected all-terrain vehicle and hit an improvised explosive device.

When he came to, Cervantes pulled another Marine from the wreckage and fell to the ground from his injuries, but still managed to provide cover. His concern was for his other Marines.

Following the incident, Cervantes and three other Marines were medically evacuated to a hospital in Germany. He had traumatic brain injury, and broke his pelvis, back, leg and foot. Both his fibula and tibia were broken.

When he awoke in the hospital, he had an external fixator on his leg, holding the bones together with pins. He also had 16 screws and two plates, and couldn’t walk.

After his leg became badly infected, doctors considered amputating it. But the final decision was to start intravenous therapy for nine weeks, and doctors had to open his leg multiple times to clean out the infection.

In the end, they saved his leg.

Cervantes wears a special brace that bypasses his ankle and transfers hard impact directly to his foot, because there is no longer cartilage in his ankle. Despite his injuries, he stays active and participates in the Warrior Games in Colorado Springs, Colo.

After being given the option to medically retire, Cervantes fought to stay in the Marine Corps. He spent the last year on expanded permanent limited duty while waiting to hear if his re-enlistment package was approved.

“I want to go back (to the fleet) and be a Marine,” Cervantes said. “I want to train other Marines and I miss being a part of it all. I just recently graduated Sergeants Course and it was good being in that motivated environment.”

Cervantes has been with Wounded Warrior Battalion West-Detachment Hawaii for three years and is looking forward to the next stage of his life with his new military occupational specialty, aviations operations.

“Thank God, I still have four years to look forward to in the Marine Corps,” Cervantes said. “My goal is to focus on the next four years and I’m going to be a better Marine as a sergeant and in the new unit I go to because of my responsibilities.”

Cervantes explained how he feels whole again after re-enlisting.

“When the re-enlistment was over, it felt like I lost 50 pounds, like a weight was lifted,” Cervantes said. “Before, everything was unsure. Nothing was set in stone; I had a new end of active service date every three months. Now, my mind is ready. 

I’m focused. I want to go back, back in the fight.”

His wife, Lauren, said she is happy for him and feels lucky to be a part of the process.

“I’m excited to see what he’s doing next and looking forward to it,” Lauren said. “When I met him what first attracted me to him was his hard work ethic and that he loves being a Marine. I saw that evolve, since it hasn’t always been easy, but now I think we are stronger for it.”

Cervantes said he learned a valuable life lesson while being a part of Det. Hawaii.

“Being in wounded warriors taught me to take care of yourself and your family,” Cervantes said. “If you don’t do that, you won’t be any good to the Marine Corps. 

That’s (the) biggest thing I’ll utilize from wounded warriors, the family aspect. 

Always take care of your Marines no matter if their staying in or getting out.”

Cervantes is scheduled to participate in this year’s Warrior Games Sept. 28 through Oct. 4. After that, he will most likely make a permanent change of station to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., before starting training for aviation operations in Mississippi. As far as the future, Cervantes said he wants to retire.

“My cover has sergeant major chevrons in it,” Cervantes said. “That’s my goal.”