September 14, 2015
UNCW senior Jose Herrera doesn’t give up easily, a quality that saw the U.S. Marine Corps veteran through two grueling tours of duty in Afghanistan and one in Iraq.
Life never has been easy for him. Herrera grew up in a poor community in New Mexico, his parents divorced when he was 14, and he lost his mother to cancer while he was still in high school. The military provided a sense of community, and of purpose, that he needed as a young man. He planned to make a career out of his service, but the combat deaths of two close friends forced Herrera to reconsider his life’s work.
He cannot forget their last moments. One friend, wounded by a gunshot, died in his arms. The other was killed instantly by an improvised explosive device (IED).
“He was standing 15 meters away from me,” Herrera recalled. “That day, I lost my soul.”
It was in helping others that he found renewal.
Herrera, a philosophy and religion major, is focused on finding solutions to defeat a different set of enemies – homelessness and hopelessness among children and veterans. He is a dedicated volunteer, actively involved in several organizations that support veterans. He is solving problems from the ground up with a container garden project at the Brigade Boys & Girls Club in downtown Wilmington and a community garden planted on an acre of land outside the city.
“It’s a form of therapy, working the land,” Herrera said. “The idea is: you are creating life. You are not destroying life. It is clean work. It is honest work. It is the kind of work that saved my life.”
His idea has taken root with several student-veterans, and they spent the summer of 2015 battling the weeds and the weather that threatened their first crop of vegetables. They’ve taken steps to form a nonprofit organization, and their long-term goals are to raise seedlings in collaboration with the Boys & Girls Club, plant them at the community garden, then donate their produce to the club and area homeless shelters that serve veterans.
Their short-term goals are simpler, as Herrera explained with a smile: “We need a tractor.”
- Andrea Monroe Weaver