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In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15 through Oct. 15), the Oregon Department of Veterans’ Affairs is sharing stories from the state’s and nation’s military and cultural history, including profiling individual Hispanic American veterans and family members in Oregon.
Stephanie Torres knew she wanted to be a Military and Family Readiness Specialist for the Oregon National Guard’s Service Member & Family Support Program after experiencing how much the program helped her in the wake of losing her husband, Sgt. Jorge “Mando” Torres, in September 2013.
Sgt. Torres, a combat medic for the 162nd Engineer Company based out of Dallas, Oregon, who served in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, was killed in a crash in Douglas County a few days before a weekend drill training while he was awaiting new active orders.
The loss left Stephanie Torres, who was the mother of two young children and, at the time, undocumented, unmoored.
“When he passed, I didn’t know there was assistance,” she recalled. “I didn’t know there was anyone who would help. It was a really rough time.”
When a Survivor Outreach Specialist with the Oregon Army National Guard called, Torres initially thought it was some kind of scam.
“I thought it was fake at first,” she said. “I was like, ‘You mean, there’s help out there?’”
Indeed, there was. Specialists helped Torres obtain her green card; then, she was able to secure her citizenship with assistance from the Oregon National Guard Service Member & Family Support Office — something she said she was inspired to do because of her late husband.
“He was all about wanting to help his fellow service members,” she said. “He knew there were a lot of people struggling with PTSD, people that needed help. I wanted to continue his legacy. And I just wanted to give back and learn more about this world my husband loved so much. I really didn’t know anything about it except that he would put on his boots and go on drill, then come back.”
After that, Torres spent five years as a Soldier and Family Readiness Group Leader, one of the programs that had thrown her a lifeline in the days and weeks after the loss of her husband.
“At that time, I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere,” she recalled. “Not until I found this program. Being able to be part of that and see how something so small that can make such a big impact in people’s lives is priceless.”
It was also around this time that she started getting involved with the Oregon chapter of the Gold Star Wives of America, an organization she now leads as president.
“They’re very supportive,” she said. “You can always call them, and they help a lot. They become like your family.”
The job Torres really wanted, though, was that of Military and Family Readiness Specialist. But she needed to obtain her U.S. citizenship to work for the federal government. Her paperwork was moving forward steadily — until the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020.
Just as offices across the state and nation were beginning to be locked down due to the spread of the virus, Torres was notified that she would be allowed to come in and complete her application.
“Nobody was working; nobody was able to get in,” she said. “Then I got this email saying that they had decided it was a special case, and people were going to come into the building just for me. I did my writing test and my knowledge test at the immigration office in Portland. They told me I was probably the only person in the entire U.S. who became a citizen that day. So, that felt amazing. It was a really great day.”
Now, she’s able to help service members and their families navigate the system and get the help they need — just like she and her children once needed when they were going through the unimaginable.
“Back when everything happened, this program saved me,” Torres said. “It helped me get back on my feet. I knew I wanted to be involved, but I never knew I could love it this much. I get to do everything I can to help stop anybody from going through the same thing I did, of feeling like there’s no one out there who cares or who can help.”
For more information about resources and benefits available to veterans’ and service members’ families, dependents and survivors, visit www.oregon.gov/odva/Resources/Pages/Family.aspx.