I identified with the fact that they had done things they weren't really proud of and they had made a lot of mistakes. Your brain is sculpted by the neighborhood you grew up in, but you can break free. —Anderson Chaves
CHICAGO — Jorge Maya sat in a circle at his neighborhood YMCA, a sturdy Afghanistan vet listening to a group of teenage boys scarred by gang violence.
There was Sammy, 16, who could describe the times he'd dodged gunfire, once ducking behind a tree.
Anderson, 17, who'd been around gangs most of his life. By his teens, he was carrying knives and bricks for protection.
And 14-year-old Fernando, who was just 12 when a pistol-wielding kid killed his friend.
Maya's own story was much the same. He'd grown up on the same streets, faced the same dangers, known the same temptations. He'd escaped Little Village, the largely Mexican community that had been home. He eventually joined the Army, trading one violent place for another, a war zone far away. And when he returned, he felt lost.
Now he was at the Y, sitting with other Afghanistan and Iraq vets and these teens, the two groups bound by a history of violence and trauma — on distant battlefields, nearby street corners or both.
They were the first class of a new YMCA-sponsored pilot program, Urban Warriors. For a dozen Saturdays, the two generations opened their hearts and minds, the vets finding new purpose after the war, the kids drawing guidance from mentors who understood their lives.
"I told them I've been through tough times," Maya says. "I've been shot. I dropped out of high school. I'd say, 'Look man, you can do something different with yourself. If I can do it, you can, too.'... There is hope."
The idea for Urban Warriors came from a prison meeting five years ago between two brothers, Eddie and Gabriel Bocanegra.
Eddie had joined a gang at age 14, seeing it as a way to protect his younger brothers and sisters. "I thought ... I'd have a say-so. I'd have a right in the community. I'd have a voice," he says.
Instead, he fatally shot someone he mistakenly thought had seriously wounded two gang friends, ending up with a 29-year sentence. One day in the prison visiting room, he and Gabriel discussed their tumultuous upbringing.
Gabriel had returned from Iraq with a Bronze Star and post-traumatic stress disorder. When Eddie revealed he'd been depressed, angry and sleepless, his brother said it also sounded very much like PTSD.
"Eddie, actually there were some nights that growing up as a kid living in Little Village was probably worse or equally as bad as Iraq," he remembers Gabriel saying.
That notion is supported by research that has concluded kids in violent communities endure trauma similar to soldiers. "They're in combat zones as well," says Grady Osten-Garner, a psychologist tracking participants in Urban Warriors at the Adler Professional School of Psychology, a partner in the project. "They're either witnessing violence or they are perpetrating violence or are the victims of violence."
Urban Warriors hopes to reduce stress for both groups, improving their self-esteem and quality of life, says Osten-Garner, a retired Army reservist. They will be evaluated periodically.
Bocanegra turned his life around after serving 14 years in prison. He's working on his master's degree in social work at the University of Chicago. He's also co-executive director of youth safety and violence prevention at the YMCA of Metro Chicago, where he focuses on the psychological impact of brutality on kids in gang-ravaged communities.
"Just because we don't see an injury doesn't mean an injury doesn't exist," he says. "How do we better understand why they're doing what they're doing?"
For Jorge Maya, hanging out with 15 or so teenage boys was like returning to his past.
Growing up, almost all Maya's friends were gang members. He saw his own big brother shot six times in the neck, dying days later. He was wounded in the same incident — a turning point in his life.
"I thought ... I have to start doing better things," says the 38-year-old veteran.
The Army boosted his confidence. But back in Chicago, Maya — now a divorced father of two — struggled with insomnia, sadness and anxiety. With counseling, he's slowly improving. Urban Warriors, he says, was "like therapy to me."
"It felt great to me when some kid is looking at me like I'm a big brother and I can try to lead him on a better path," he says.
Every Saturday, they tackled a big question: What does it take to be a man? What do you want your legacy to be? (Not one kid mentioned gangs.)
"All we talked about was 'there's a better life than what you're doing now,'" says Fernando, now 14, still haunted by the shooting that killed his friend. "They'd say, 'It's still early. You're still young, you can make changes."
Anderson Chaves was already changing when he joined Urban Warriors.
As a teen, Chaves became absorbed into gang life. He quickly acquired an arrest record but last summer, after spending a few months with a sister who lives in a quiet town in Oklahoma, he moved away from his troublesome associations.
The vets, he says, have been encouraging.
"I identified with the fact that they had done things they weren't really proud of and they had made a lot of mistakes," Chaves says. "Your brain is sculpted by the neighborhood you grew up in, but you can break free."
The second class of Urban Warriors begins soon with a new group of veterans and kids from a black neighborhood.
The hope is the vets become lifelong mentors.
For Angel Herrera, an Iraq vet, the program forced him to confront the wrong-headed decisions he'd made as a teen when he used drugs and hung out with the wrong people.
"It has helped me be OK with knowing I did have a troubled life and I found my way out of it.," says Herrera, who works in the finance department of a Fortune 500 company.
Hopefully, he says, his journey will touch some kids.
"They know that people who grew up in the same neighborhoods were actually able to get ahead," he says. "Maybe one day when they're ready to make a decision, they'll hold back and say, 'I remember what Angel said.'"
Sharon Cohen, a Chicago-based national writer, can be reached at [email protected].