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August 2, 2005
Homeless man's life changed by war, terrorism

by Dennis Duggan
There are plenty of stories about war veterans who become homeless after marching home. But the experience of Orlando Rosa, 40, is a switch on that story.

The city's mean streets were where he slept, made love and took drugs for years, starting in 1993. Then, early last year, he was called up by the National Guard to go to Iraq. For many in the Guard who never expected to have to go to war, that was the worst kind of news, but not for Rosa. He was ready for a change, even if it meant getting killed.

The one smart thing Rosa had done was enlist at 18 in the National Guard, where he trained in the armory on Lexington Avenue, home to the famed Fighting 69th Division celebrated in the 1940 film starring Jimmy Cagney.

Rosa admits his erratic personal life caused him to miss many of its training sessions. But when the Guard activated him last year and sent him to Fort Drum in upstate New York for three months, he took to soldiering with relish.

"I was sick of being in the streets, of sleeping in the subways, of taking drugs. I was depressed and my life seemed like it was going nowhere," says Rosa. "Now I had another chance to change all that."

And the horror of the Twin Towers attack on Sept. 11, 2001 -- and volunteering at Ground Zero -- set him on a life-transforming path that sent him off to war, and to his new life back at home.

When I interviewed him Monday, Rosa looked tan and fit, anything but down and out. He was mustered out of service after almost a year in Iraq and returned to New York this January.

In April, he was hired as a site supervisor by the Doe Fund, a nonprofit group that rehabilitates men and women coming out of jail. He's the boss of a crew charged with keeping many Upper West Side streets free of litter.

"If it weren't for the Doe Fund, I'd be back on the streets or in jail or even dead," he says. "When I saw how the people working there had turned their lives around, it gave me the strength to do the same for myself."

On Monday, Rosa enrolled in Monroe College in the Bronx, where he plans to study accounting at night starting in the fall.

He was also making plans to celebrate his 40th birthday with his wife, Myra, whom he married two years ago. The couple live in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx.

When Rosa looks back at his misspent youth -- he has fathered three daughters with three different women -- he shakes his head. "I was so depressed," he says. "But I knew there had to be something better for me. And my parents, especially my mother, kept telling me I could do better with my life."

He says that his wartime experience in Iraq, with all its dangers, gave him a sense of responsibility that has carried over into his life now.

"I knew I was headed for danger in Iraq," he says. "One of my best friends was shot and killed while riding in his Humvee just ahead of me. But I learned plenty by being in combat, and with the GI Bill, I can afford to go to school."

He says, too, that despite polls showing that a majority of Americans are discontented with the way the war in Iraq is going, he supports President George W. Bush. "I know we will have to be there for years -- maybe as many as 20 -- but the Iraqi people need our help."

Rosa says that he hopes one day to get a job in law enforcement, possibly as a parole officer or a correction guard.

"A lot of soldiers I met in Iraq griped about being called up, but not me. I wanted to fight for my country because of what happened on 9/11."

It was the attack of the Twin Towers that forced Rosa to think about his life of self-indulgence and his own loss of self-respect.

But the work he did with the Guard after 9/11, where he helped provide security around the perimeter of Ground Zero to prevent looting, and assisting the firefighters in putting out fires, helped give him that sense of responsibility.

His anger at the enormous damage grew each day he worked there. And he decided that if he got the chance, he would be happy to fight for his country.

Now he's home, and ready to continue his journey of self-transformation.

"My past is behind me," he says. "Now it's about my future."

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