Veterans Day – A Veteran’s Perspective on What it Means to be a Vet
BY DON RAY
As Veterans Day approaches, my thoughts often turn to food — free food.
It’s a day when restaurants, coffee shops, and fast-food outlets honor veterans by feeding them. After all, everyone knows that an army moves on its stomach. Once a soldier, always a soldier.
I sauntered inside American Legion Post 595 in Perris on Sunday to, of course, take advantage of the $7-breakfast special. I was savoring the great meal when the dining room cashier, called out, “Mr. Chaplain! How you doin’, Chaplain?”
I expected to see a white-collared man of the cloth, but instead, I saw a giant, gray mustache that was hiding half the face and much of the chest of what appeared to be a rough-around-the-edges biker dude. Just about every square inch of his skin that was visible from his neck down was a montage of tattoos.
A bad ass if I’d ever seen one.
His “U.S. Navy Veteran – VF-124” baseball cap assured me that he was indeed a veteran. The giant smile that soon emerged from behind his Yosemite Sam mustache put my instinctively over-cautious mind at ease.
The volunteer cashier, Army veteran Andrew Crane, introduced me to Post 595’s Chaplain Ed Moreno. He was there to buy a breakfast to go — a meal that he said he would give to one of the many homeless people along Sixth Street.
I spent the next couple of hours with Chaplain Ed and would walk away with a new perspective on what it means to be a veteran.
I would learn about a boy who grew up in the roughest of gang-infested neighborhoods — where survival meant more than just finding food to eat. I would learn about his involvement with drugs and alcohol and crime. And I would learn about his conversion more than 50 years ago from a violent, abusive young man to a God-fearing believer — and how a veterans’ organization not only embraced him, but for the last ten years have elected him to be its chaplain.
I followed him as he patrolled Sixth Street in his old, weathered, mini pick up, until he made a quick left turn into a driveway and parked just a few yards away from an equally weathered woman.
All her worldly possessions surrounded her under an already harsh Autumn sun.
“Hi there,” Chaplain Ed said to the woman with cropped black hair. “How have you been? I’ve kind of seen you a couple of times and thought I’d stop by and see what’s going on.”
The short woman squinted, looked up and said, “I’m Illuminati. Not the bad Illuminati. You know. God is coming back soon. I’m the Chosen One Illuminati.”
“You’ve been here for a while now,” Chaplain Ed said. “Are you from Perris?”
As she accepted the plastic bag containing the breakfast, she said, “My mom and dad were, but then I was adopted out because of the trouble at Illuminate. I came back, though. I’ve been here for going on two years on the street.
“But I was working. I was almost retired,” she said.
Chaplain Ed said encouragingly, “You gotta get back to that situation. Have you thought about getting into a Christian home?”
“I did go to the Anchor in Christ in Elsinore,” she said, “but OK, they now have Illuminati on me still. Oh, I’m ready to just get my son back — getting my life back together.”
Without a trace of judgment, surprise, or disbelief, Chaplain Ed listened and said, “Oh, OK. Whatever you decide, you know, we’re at the American Legion here, and I can talk to one of the girls if you need a sleeping bag or stuff like that.”
The woman kept her head down — I’m not sure if it was to avoid the bright sun or to avoid eye contact.
“OK, I need a jacket,” she said, “because I don’t have one.”
“Oh, praise the Lord,” Chaplain Ed said. “We’re going to make that happen today.”
She said her name is Denise Bustamante.
“Oh, my goodness,” Chaplain Ed said. “You know, I passed you by earlier when I was looking for somebody — to see if I can help them.
“I guess you’re the one. I’m going to make this happen,” he said as he posed with her for a selfie. “You’re a star today. God bless you, Denise. Let’s see what happens.”
“I was born in the Inland Empire, right here in Riverside, but I was raised in Vista,” Denise said. “Then I came back here in ’84, OK? I was born here, then lived here for a few months, and then I was adopted.”
She told me she had worked at a retail store for 17 years.
“Then something changed?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said.
Chaplain Ed put one arm around her and pointed his iPhone at them both.
“If anybody wants to help my friend Denise, get hold of me or Post 595,” he said into the camera. “She needs clothes, sleeping bags — she got food today. Praise the Lord.
“And she’s a beautiful person. I got blessed to be able to pray with her. Denise, it’s been a pleasure meeting you, and let me see what I can do.”
Denise joined Chaplain Ed in a prayer.
“Hopefully I will see you in the next couple of hours.”
Before we had hit the streets, Chaplain Ed had been remarkably open with me about his over-the-top and rock-bottom life.
“I was born in El Paso, Texas,” he said. “When I was five, my dad got a job in L.A. on Broadway. We all jumped on a plane, and we ended up Downtown, then Echo Park and then in the Aliso Village, the projects.
“I grew up there and got beat up and shoved. It was part of life — turning on the lights, you see the cockroaches at night, you kill them all you want, but they’re gonna come in next door.”
He reminisced about the beautiful smell of his mother’s tortillas.
“All the kids would come knocking. ‘Can we have a flour tortilla?’”
But he says it was easy to get in trouble in the projects.
“Don’t be doing that,” he remembers his mother saying. “You’re going to get yourself in trouble.”
Later, he said, the family lived in the El Monte neighborhood east of Los Angeles, where there was even more trouble — especially when he joined a neighborhood gang.
“I was shot at many times. I’ve been ambushed.”
He recalls the time he was pumping gas when his friend said some members of a nearby gang were coming their way. He says he threw down the hose, jumped in the car and drove away as the bullets filled his car full of holes.
“We survived,” he says, “but many of my friends didn’t make it in that type of situation.
“They got killed and shot and murdered.”
Most of his surviving friends ended up in the military and went to Vietnam, Chaplain Ed says. But when he enlisted, his mother appealed to a higher authority.
“My mom said, ‘It was because I prayed that the Lord would not send you there.’”
Ed served his time in the Navy fueling F-16 fighters at the Miramar Naval Air Base in San Diego, he says.
It wasn’t long after he left the Navy he got married and eventually got a job with the City of Glendale as part of a street work crew. In his spare time, he loved working on motorcycles. His younger brother Sam, he says, worked at a motorcycle shop.
Seven years into his marriage, he says, he found the Lord and, with a friend, set out to reach others — at California Youth Authority Camps, prison outreach programs, and even on the streets of San Francisco.
“I had no official gospel training,” he said. “We didn’t want to get hooked up with a particular church where we’d have to get permission to get involved with the needy.”
When his life and lifestyle changed, he said he no longer fit in with his fellow street crew workers.
“I didn’t like it because everybody I worked with knew that I was a Christian, so they hated me. Their trucks were full of Playboy Magazines.”
He says the other workers would belittle him for not wanting to look at them.
That’s when he quit his job, his brother Sam quit his as well, and they opened their own motorcycle shop in Azusa. They were living in Perris at the time and commuted daily to the San Gabriel Valley.
Tragedy struck, however, in 1996 when his brother Sam died in a motorcycle accident on the hill behind their home.
“And I walked up to the hill, just depressed, ‘My God, why did you do this to me, Man? Hey, I’m a Christian. It isn’t supposed to happen like this.’ And I got to the top of the mountain, and the Lord just delivered me — just to calm that heaviness, that depression, that sadness.
“Hey, God just delivered me!”
Chaplain Ed credits Rochele, his wife of 50 years for his passion for helping veterans and others.
“She’s such a beautiful person,” he said. “She’s just always had my back, and she lived through the hard times when I was on drugs and messed up.
“And I’d hit her. I was a messed up, you know. I was the alcoholic with a drug addiction. I was always messing around with women. I didn’t care.”
He says that’s when they both became believers together, everything changed.
“God has blessed us.”
Since then, they invested in other properties and now live comfortably off the rent they collect.
A dozen or so years ago, he says some members of a local American Legion motorcycle club invited him to ride with them.
“When they found out that I’m a veteran, they invited me to join Post 595.”
A couple of years later, the members of the post elected him as their chaplain.
I asked Chaplain Ed about his tattoos. He told me how each one represents part of his troubled, and later blessed life.
“They start from five years old,” he said as he points to what looks like a scar above his right thumb. “My first one was from my uncle who was a heroin addict that died. He gave me that one.
“Some of the fancier ones are more in the 20 years old. Some go back to the penitentiary.”
“I got busted for drugs, you know, dealing. I was coming out of Mexico with a lot of heroin. And I was stuffed with balloons you know, and I crossed the border with it.
“And, you know, I was young, you know, so I did my little time, so I’m clean now.”
He says the tattoos are not there for him to brag about.
“But I’m glad I was able to grow through that. And I could learn to deal with the people on the streets.”
Later that afternoon, Chaplain Ed returned with his own family members to deliver large bags of clothing, bedding materials, personal hygiene items, new shoes and more.
He had kept his word.
His daughter Andrea Moreno videotaped the informal gift ceremony there on Sixth Street, and he quickly posted the video on Instagram underneath the message, “God bless Denis (sic)” and encouraged others to help the grateful woman get her life back together.
“You know what?” he said. “I can talk as a veteran. I can talk as a drug user. I can talk as, you know, like messed up. Whatever.
“I love people that are hurting. And people won’t touch these people with a 10-foot pole, but I do because my heart goes out to them.”
He says that, if you don’t find them in the church, hit the streets.
“I’ve been in big ministries and that’s awesome.” he said. “But streets is where it’s at. And the years I’ve worked the streets, you know, and wherever the Lord puts me is in my heart.
“I passed by her this morning, and it turns out she’s a pretty smooth person.”
This experience gave me a “pretty smooth” outlook on how veterans find strength, solve problems, and have a chance to make the world better – even years after they left the military behind.
A proud Vietnam Veteran, Don Ray is also a six-decade veteran multimedia reporter, writer, editor and producer for scores of print and visual media outlets. He as reported from Guatemala, Nicaragua, Mexico, the Philippines, Vietnam, Laos, Cuba, and trained journalists in emerging nations across Africa and Europe. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To visit Chaplain Ed Moreno’s instagram page to see his interaction with Denise Bustamante click here.
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