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By: Matt Hansen

Ask Dennis Rivera about his time in the Navy and he’ll tell you with pride about his service as a gunner’s mate during Operation Desert Storm.

But he’ll also tell you about how, even as he excelled, he struggled with the trauma of war — and how that struggle stays with him today.

It all started on November 1, 1988, when he enlisted in the Navy. Three years later, he saw active duty in Desert Storm. “When I went, it was frightening,” he remembers.

While on the front lines, Dennis started using heroin to cope with the sights and sounds of war, including the three enemy soldiers he killed.

He knows now that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder from his wartime experiences, but at the time he didn’t realize.

Returning to his base in California after the war, Dennis grappled with his newfound addiction and the nightmares it was supposed to prevent. What had seemed like a short-term fix on the battlefield quickly became a liability back home.

“They found out I was using drugs from a routine drug test,” he said. The military’s zero tolerance policy for substance abuse left him with an instant dishonorable discharge.

Going home to his family in New York wasn’t any easier. He struggled to find work and to support his addiction, eventually resorting to selling drugs. But “I wasn’t a good salesman,” he said and was quickly arrested.

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And so began a revolving door of incarceration. Dennis was arrested several times and jailed for more than five years between 1996 and 2003.

As his sobriety unraveled, so did his family life. His wife left him as she fought her own addiction issues, while his children went to live with their grandparents. After his final release from prison, he lost his home and had nowhere to go.

For four years, he “woke up hungry and on drugs” on New York’s sidewalks and benches until an intervention from Breaking Ground’s Street to Home team changed the trajectory of his life.

“They’ve been there for me,” he said.

As a Robin Hood-funded affordable housing provider for homeless and low-income city residents, Breaking Ground has helped more than 12,000 people across New York escape homelessness, including hundreds of veterans who, like Dennis, were formerly living on the street.

Yet, by his own admission, Dennis wasn’t quite ready for a permanent home when Breaking Ground first approached him. He wasn’t ready to prioritize rent while still struggling with his addiction, and he was eventually required to leave his Breaking Ground apartment in 2011, after just one year.

But the organization’s mission stayed with him. As Dennis puts it, “Breaking Ground never gave up on me. They gave me hope.”

By 2013, Dennis was exhausted from living on the streets and managing his addiction. He approached Breaking Ground one more time and committed to entering a methadone program. By July 2013, he had enrolled in drug treatment, and by August of that year he had another chance at a place to live. This time, he vowed, he “would get better.”

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And he has kept that promise.

He has been sober for one year, has a full-time job working with the chronically ill, and still sees a Breaking Ground counselor regularly while once again living in one of their apartment buildings. He’s tapering off his methadone program — hoping to complete it within months.

And while he and his wife are separated, she is “still in my life.” His extended family — once unable to trust him at the height of his addiction — now freely give him house keys and bank cards to handle. And he’s a proud father and grandfather.

But it’s his latest goal that makes him proudest: he’s enrolled in the New York College of Technology, studying for a bachelor’s degree with a focus on human services and accounting. He hopes one day to open up an organization that helps people — just like Breaking Ground did for him.

“I’m just looking forward to doing something better,” he said. “I’m eager to do this. I’m committed.”
And while he looks back wistfully at his time in the Navy — “I could have made a career, I could have been retired,” he muses — he understands now that he needed to deal with his trauma head on. He’s seeing a psychiatrist now and says the nightmares have begun to subside.

Mostly, though, he’s grateful — grateful for his rewarding job, his clean and safe housing, his new-found outlook on life. And he’s grateful for Breaking Ground, which never turned away from him.

“They gave me a second chance,” he said. “Not a lot of people get a second chance these days.”

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