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October 10, 2005

by Andrea Peyser
ORLANDO ROSA wanted badly to help rebuild Iraq. But once overseas, the soldier got a lot more than he bargained for -- Iraq helped him rebuild his own life, from the bottom floor up.

Just a few years ago, Rosa, now 40, had fallen as low as a man can get. He was homeless, drug-addicted and depressed. He quit a good job at a bank so he could get high. He spent his life savings on dope.

He doesn't remember exactly how long he was on the streets of the Lower East Side, but he remembers too well what it felt like.

"Living on the street, my self-esteem was really low," he told me. That was then.

For Rosa, the road to recovery began with the military. He'd been in the Army Reserves, and when he was down on his luck, some buddies came by and took a hard look at him.

"You need help," they told him.

But needing help and wanting it are two different things. Finally, Rosa took the first step. He signed on to the Doe Fund, an organization that helps the homeless with work training and drug counseling. It's a tough-love approach, and some fail. The rest was up to him.

And then, the military came back into Rosa's life.

Rosa was called up to duty in Iraq last year, attached to the National Guard's 27th Brigade as a gunner. Rosa, a man of few words, sounded downright excited when he talked about serving.

"We were helping the country build itself back up," he said. "Economically, they should be able to decide where they want their country to be. They should have the freedom to vote, to express themselves.

"We were building roads, schools and hospitals. And we were helping people who need a chance."

And it dawned on us both -- he could be talking about his own journey.

Rosa carried out raids on Iraqi homes to smoke out rebels, missions he accomplished with bravery. On one occasion, tragedy struck, and closely. He was riding back to his base in a Humvee when the car behind him was blown up by a land mine. At first, he thought it was an ambush.

In the blown-up car was a good friend of Rosa's, a mere kid of 23. He was killed immediately.

"It was a quick death," he said with some relief. He paused. "We were good friends. I knew that was part of this job."

Now that he's back, Rosa, who works as a supervisor for the Doe Fund, has other things to be excited about. He's about to study accounting at Monroe College.

And his daughter, from whom he's been estranged, is back in his life. Six months ago, daughter Ava gave Rosa something else to be proud of. A grandson, Jayvien.

"You gotta see my grandson!" Rosa said as Ava walked up, pushing a stroller. "I'm thrilled!"

Then he whisked the boy into his arms.

A family complete. A life made whole.

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