Islander Criminal Justice Major, Iraq War Veteran Follows Path to Help Fellow Vets

By Richard Guerrero | Published: August 02, 2019

Islander Criminal Justice Major, Iraq War Veteran Follows Path to Help Fellow Vets

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi criminal justice major Samuel Cabrera knows firsthand the incalculable scars—both physical and psychological—that war exacts on veterans. 

As an Iraq War veteran, Cabrera was critically injured during his second tour in 2005 and spent five years in and out of hospitals recovering from extensive wounds. This summer, Cabrera will earn his second bachelor’s degree from the Island University on Aug. 10—some 14 years to the day he was injured—and will start work on a master’s degree in counseling this fall. He plans to become a counselor with a background in criminal justice to help veterans who are dealing with law enforcement cases.

Although he is a native Corpus Christi resident, Cabrera graduated from HM King High School in Kingsville in 1993 and spent nine years in the Armed Forces: three years in the National Guard followed by six years in the Army. Cabrera deployed to Iraq in 2004; the next year, he was serving as a member of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal team in Balad Ruz in Diyala Province when he and several other soldiers were injured in an improvised explosive device, or IED, explosion.

“My job was to find explosives to defuse them and blow them up,” Cabrera said. “Members of the insurgency had been studying our movements and as we closed in on the bomb that we had been sent to defuse, a second IED went off. A lot of soldiers were injured; I was the worst one.”

Back in the United States, Cabrera faced a long recovery for massive head trauma and shrapnel wounds. To this day, he still suffers from tremors and from the effects of head trauma. “I still have shrapnel in my head,” Cabrera said. 

For his bravery and service in combat, Cabrera was awarded a lengthy list of medals and commendations, including a Purple Heart, a Combat Action Badge, an Army Commendation Medal, and an Iraq Campaign Medal, to name a few. With his military career at an end, Cabrera set his sights on a career in counseling. 

Relying on the support of sisters Rosa Contreras and Linda Lee Hancock who drove Cabrera to and from classes, he first found the requisite support and range of services necessary to help him succeed at Coastal Bend College’s site in Alice where he earned an associate degree in 2014. That same year, he enrolled at the Island University to complete work on a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

Dr. Anthony Zoccolillo, Professional Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology and Sociology, said he remembers Cabrera as a dedicated student who availed himself of every opportunity to ask questions about course work that he found challenging. 

“Sam was a regular visitor during office hours, something that is incredibly unique,” Zoccolillo said. “He became very adept at understanding his limitations and developing strategies that work for him.”

While at the Island University, Cabrera utilized a variety of services to help him succeed. For assistance with reading assignments, he registered with Disability Services, which provided access to the Kurzweil 3000 text-to-speech program. 

“Sam used Kurzweil 3000 to read PDFs of his textbooks and other documents,” said Jennifer Weir, Assistive Technology Specialist with Disability Services. “This program reads the words aloud with a realistic, synthesized voice while simultaneously highlighting the words and sentences in contrasting colors. This multimodal style of reading helps improve word recognition, decoding, and retention. There is no fee to the qualified student for using our services.” 

Following graduation with a B.A. in Psychology in 2016, Cabrera said he decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice to prove to himself that he could complete another educational goal.

Dr. Wendi Pollock recalls that Cabrera was determined to succeed as a student in her Research Methods for Criminal Justice Class, CRIJ 4345. 

“Sam often had drafts of assignments done days earlier than they were due, so that he could bring them in,” said Pollock, Associate Professor of Criminal Justice. “I would show him where he had some problems, and then he would work on them and bring them in again, all before many of his classmates had even begun working on their assignments.”

Following graduation with a B.A. in Criminal Justice on Aug. 10, Cabrera plans to begin work on a master’s degree in counseling at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. It’s been a long road, but Cabrera intends to see it through to the completion of his next educational goal so that he can advocate for and counsel men and women who have served in our nation’s Armed Forces. 

“Many veterans find themselves in trouble with the law when they come home,” he said. “I want to understand the law so that I can help them as much as I can.”

Additional Information

Cabrera is one of approximately 320 students (including veterans) registered in the spring 2019 semester who utilized Disability Services. Types of services provided are the use of exam services, audio recording lectures, interpreters and/or note-taking. To learn more, visit https://disabilityservices.tamucc.edu/.