OCEANSIDE — Veterans who have transitioned from military to civilian life can go on to serve the public in a variety of capacities, whether it’s as law enforcement, firefighters, teachers, nurses, doctors or even as council members.
Christopher Rodriguez, 34, fits into that last criterion since being elected onto Oceanside City Council last fall.
Rodriguez first came to Oceanside in 2002 as a Marine stationed at Camp Pendleton. He joined at the young age of 17, though he had already done some fast growing up before that.
Rodriguez was born Chicago, where his father was a member of the Latin Kings gang and abusive to his family. Rodriguez’s mother eventually escaped his father with Rodriguez and his sister, and later remarried a Marine who partly influenced Rodriguez’s decision to also become one.
Even before joining the Marines, Rodriguez became a young father and married. He also had to graduate high school early to join the Marines when he did.
Rodriguez served two combat tours in Iraq, including the Invasion to Baghdad and the Fight for Fallujah, Operation Vigilant Resolve.
It was in the latter tour when Rodriguez suffered injuries in a firefight. A rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) exploded near his head, which knocked him out, gave him a concussion and cost him all hearing in his left ear.
Rodriguez was awarded a Purple Heart and was honorably discharged from the Marines. In 2007, he started his own mortgage and real estate company, opening his first office on Coast Highway right in Oceanside.
He also owns and runs a farm with his wife, Sarah, and his seven children, who range in age from 20 years old to 4 months old.
Rodriguez became involved in the Chamber of Commerce after opening his own business. During that time, he realized that the chamber didn’t have a lot of programs for its Hispanic business owners.
“A large part of Oceanside is Hispanic businesses, but they needed more support,” he said.
Rodriguez went on to form a Hispanic business committee on the chamber. Soon after, they published their first bilingual publication and got funding from the county for a full-time bilingual staff member.
Rodriguez said he was later encouraged to run for Oceanside City Council, but he wasn’t really interested — at first, anyway. His perspective changed after he took a class on political leadership that taught him the ins and outs of campaigning.
“You see how your city’s ran and you really have limited influence as a business owner or just a resident or on a board here or there,” Rodriguez said. “It really takes being the seat of a policymaker to really get things done.”
While Rodriguez works to give back to his community as a civil servant, he also works to give back to his fellow veterans as well.
Though thousands of veterans live in San Diego County with its heavy military presence, Rodriguez said there is definitely room for improvement when it comes to taking care of those who served.
“There are lots of services and service organizations but what San Diego County lacks is collaboration,” Rodriguez said. “Everybody’s doing their own thing — we’ve got 500 nonprofits going after veterans individually… there needs to be a way everybody can work together and collaborate, and it’s got to be more than handing them a pamphlet.”
According to Rodriguez, many veterans simply don’t know where to go for help after they transition into civilian life. For example, he said veterans who became disabled while serving can get monthly benefits to help offset costs, but many don’t know how to access those resources.
Rodriguez said veterans could use advocates to help point them in the right direction of services while transitioning out of the military.
“They need somebody to case manage them through that process,” he said.
Being a “detail freak” and a father, Rodriguez felt more pressure to find the resources he needed than many of the single Marines when they first got out. Even still the process was difficult, particularly with his disability.
“You’re basically guilty until proven innocent,” he said. “You’ve got to show medical records, then go to an appoint and re-explain everything, then they come back and say you’re missing something, or you need another appointment, then eventually you have like 12 appointments.”
Rodriguez tries to help other veterans get through some of those processes. Recently the council member said he helped a disabled Korean War veteran apply for a tax exemption that would help him save about $600 a month.
Rodriguez wants to see more veterans helping other veterans.
“We’ve got to do this for each other,” he said. “We need more veterans helping veterans, not just relying on these organizations to do it.”
Samantha Nelson covers Oceanside, Camp Pendleton and the decommissioning San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. She earned her journalism degree from the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, and has previously reported for The Athens Messenger in Athens, Ohio, and USA Today in McLean, Virginia. Follow her on Twitter: @samm1son