Mass. Iraq vet with PTSD finds new life at sea

February 25, 2012 - 1:36 PM

BOSTON (AP) — The danger he faced in Iraq was constant, and that's reflected in how Erick Valiente remembers the M-16 rifle he took on patrol.

"That was my right hand, pretty much," said the former Marine infantryman. "I don't think I ever let go of that weapon."

The rifle is gone, but Valiente still carries burdens from his service that complicate his civilian life, including post-traumatic stress disorder and a restlessness that made finding work difficult.

That is, until a friend who works for U.S. Sen. John Kerry mentioned an opening for a swordfish boat crewman.

This month, Valiente returned from his first trip, a three-week stint 700 miles east of the Bahamas.

In an interview from Florida, where the Iron Lady docked for a few days, Valiente described grueling work days and the perils of landing a thrashing, big game fish. The challenges of the job are exactly why boat owner Tim Malley went to Kerry's office looking for references to military veterans seeking work.

Malley knew Iraq and Afghanistan veterans were struggling to find jobs, and figured they'd have the needed endurance and discipline.

"My motives were both selfish, in that I wanted a good reliable, strong crew member, but also to do some good for some people that had done so much for us, put their lives on the line for us," said Malley, chief executive of Boston Sword & Tuna.

The unemployment rate for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan has remained consistently higher than the nation's. In January, their unemployment rate was 9.1 percent, compared to the 8.3 percent nationally, but down from 15.2 percent a year earlier.

To spur hiring of veterans, President Barack Obama last year signed the Vow to Hire Heroes Act, which includes incentives such as tax credits for employers that hire veterans. Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, co-sponsored the bill.

"Some people talk a big game about hiring veterans, but Tim (Malley) walks the walk," Kerry said. "God bless him. We need hundreds more just like him. This is chapter and verse of how you keep faith with our brothers in arms."

Valiente, 27, of Whitman, was born in Guatemala and came to Massachusetts as a child. He joined the Marines at age 20 and served six years in the reserves, including a tour in 2006 in Fallujah, Iraq, where he earned a combat action ribbon. He saw things he'd rather not talk about.

"Some days it got pretty bad," he said. "Iraq is hard, dealing with losing friends and stuff you shouldn't be dealing with at that age."

He liked the military, but his post-traumatic stress eventually made it impossible to stay on as infantryman, so he left.

Recent times have seen Valiente try various things, including college, which he didn't take to, and a job as a window washer on high-rise buildings in Boston, which was more his speed. But that work shut down in the winter, and Valiente was left juggling unsatisfying odd jobs to support his longtime girlfriend and their 4-year-old daughter.

"Finding a job once you get out of the Marine Corps, you tend to get really bored, really, really fast," he said.

Fishing for tuna and swordfish is not dull, but it's definitely not for everyone. Malley made that clear to Valiente when they met for lunch just after Christmas.

He told him about the weeks-long trips with only short windows of time in port, and how hard that is on families. Then there's the brutal work of hauling and setting hundreds of hooks on up to 50 miles of line.

Alcohol and drug abuse is common among crew members, and personal conflicts can grow and fester in confined quarters hundreds of miles from land, Malley said.

But Valiente was ready to go.

The first days of the trip were exhausting, just getting used to the sporadic sleep and work schedule, Valiente said. The dangers were real and constant: the fishing line wore out his palms and was a threat to wrap around his wrist, taking him under or slicing his hand off. The crew had to ride writhing swordfish to control them, "like you're on top of a bronco or something." A mako shark they pulled up got a bullet in the head, so it couldn't sink its jaws into the crew.

"It's tough on the water," Valiente said. "It's tough in Iraq, but it's tough on the water."

The beauty of the open ocean wasn't lost on Valiente, though. The times of serenity combined with the challenge of the work was about right for a veteran dealing with post-traumatic stress but also looking for excitement.

Malley said the crew was initially skeptical about Valiente, but he received positive reports about his performance. The next crew vacancy on one of his two boats will also be filled by a veteran, Malley said, even as Valiente says has no plans to create a job opening by leaving.

He misses his daughter and worries about how life at sea will affect his family. But he needs to make a living, and he thinks he may have finally found a good way to do it.

"I plan on staying with this," he said. "I really do love fishing."