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.
Like Maya, most had seen — or survived — horrible things.
There was Sammy, who at 16 could calmly rattle off his narrow escapes, the times he dodged gunfire by ducking behind a tree or fled a bicyclist who started shooting.
Anderson, 17, who'd seen his first dead body, a gang shooting victim, when he was just 6. 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 ran out between two buildings and sprayed bullets into a crowd. A friend died on Fernando's couch, awaiting an ambulance.
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 thousands of miles away. And when he returned, he felt lost.
Now he was in a meeting room at the Y, sitting with other Afghanistan and Iraq vets and with these teens, the two groups bound by their shared 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 three months of 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 problems, because they'd lived them themselves.
"I told them I've been through tough times," Maya says. "I had my little criminal record. 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 out there."
The idea for Urban Warriors came out of a prison meeting five years ago between two close-knit brothers, Eddie and Gabriel Bocanegra.
Eddie was serving a 29-year murder sentence — he shot someone he mistakenly thought had seriously wounded two gang friends. Gabriel had returned from Iraq with a Bronze Star and post-traumatic stress disorder. In the visiting room, they talked about their tumultuous upbringing in Little Village.
Eddie was 13 when he witnessed his first killing — a 19-year-old shot just yards from him in a park. Mindful of the power of the gangs, he turned to the streets a year later. "I saw this as an opportunity to protect my little brothers and sisters because I was the oldest," he says. "I thought if I joined the gangs, I'd have a say-so. I'd have a right in the community. I'd have a voice."
Instead, Eddie went to prison. His father later moved the family to Texas to escape the violence; Eddie's two brothers and one sister would join the military.
In the prison's visiting room, Eddie told Gabriel he'd been depressed, angry and sleepless in prison. Gabriel said it sounded like PTSD.
Eddie protested. He'd never been in combat. How could he have that kind of trauma? His brother was insistent.
"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 his brother saying. And it was true, Eddie says: "You would hear the gunshots all the time. You would be walking around and someone shoots."
That notion is supported by decades of research that has concluded kids in violence-saturated 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. They have the same emotional and physical reactions to that threat."
Urban Warriors hopes to reduce stress for the vets and kids, while improving their self-esteem and quality of life, says Osten-Garner, a retired Army reservist. Both groups will be evaluated periodically and followed for a year.
Bocanegra turned his life around after serving 14 years in prison. He's now 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.
Urban Warriors is part of his larger effort at the Y to focus attention on the psychological impact of violence on kids in gang-ravaged communities.
"Just because we don't see an injury doesn't mean an injury doesn't exist," he says. "The kids who are victims a lot of times become perpetrators. The way they cope with that trauma is inflicting pain on people. ... How do we better understand why they're doing what they're doing?"
For Jorge Maya, spending time with 15 or so teenage boys was like looking into a mirror 20 years ago.
"I'd see myself in each and every one of their faces," he says. "I'd come home and think I used to say the same things: 'There is no other life out here. It's hopeless. This is all I'm going to amount to. I don't care.' I was very rebellious and very negative. I felt nobody cared about what I was doing."
Growing up, almost all Maya's friends were gang members. Shootings, beatings, stabbings were all he knew. Maya saw his own big brother shot six times in the neck, dying days later. He was wounded in the same incident, left with a bullet fragment in his right thigh, a hip-to-knee plastic rod — and a determination to change his ways.
"I thought I can't keep doing this, I need to calm down," says the 38-year-old veteran. "I have to start doing better things."
The Army boosted his confidence. But back in Chicago, Maya — now a divorced father of two — struggled with insomnia, sadness and the kind of anxiety that made him fear a plastic bag in the street might contain a bomb. 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," says Maya, who repairs railroad cars.
Every Saturday for 12 weeks, the group started each session with a "talking piece": For the vets, maybe a shell casing or uniform. For the teens, an old letter from a father in prison or a photo of a brother killed in gang violence.
Every week, 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.) Should there be a code of silence when a crime occurs? (Some kids maintained that cooperating with authorities is snitching and accused the vets of siding with the police.)
More often than not, the kids and the vets clicked, sharing phone numbers and life-changing moments, some in remote corners of the earth, others on the streets of Little Village.
Alberto Boleres told of his near-death experience in Iraq when his truck rolled over after running over a roadside bomb. He was thrown into the windshield, cracking his skull. He received a Purple Heart but once he came home, he had nightmares, sweats, drank heavily and got into fights.
It took him about two years to get back on track. Boleros, 33, now works security, imports coffee from Guatemala — his father's homeland — and hopes to open a coffeehouse.
At Urban Warriors, Boleres related to the kids, remembering his past using drugs, hanging out with gangs, barely averting disaster. He was once shot in the back. Three close friends were killed in gang-related incidents.
Gang life, he says, "is like a bad habit. If you do it every day and every day and every day, it's kind of hard to break. It's an addiction."
The kids had their own harrowing stories.
Elvis, 17, short and stocky with a teardrop tattoo in the corner of his eye, served two years in juvenile detention for stabbing a man in a gang fight when he was just 12. "My war was on the streets," he says. (Like some others quoted in this story, The Associated Press acceded to his request that he be identified only by his first name because he is a minor.)
"I'm a jellybean — hard on the outside, soft on the inside," he insists. "Every time when I'm on the streets, I do what I got to do. But when I go in the crib, I goof around with my mom, I watch PBS, I play Xbox."
But the vets would not give him a pass.
Elvis recalls when one vet told him there are two roads in life — one bad, one good — he replied he could travel both, going to school during the day, hanging with gangs at night. The vet, Elvis says, warned him if that was his plan, "you're going to wake up in a cell."
It was a message repeated over the months.
"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 kid, Chaves studied neighborhood gangs carefully — their names, their hand signals, their turf. Slowly, he became absorbed into the life. "I felt I had to pick a side," he says. "If not, I would just be an outsider and be picked on by everybody."
Chaves quickly acquired an arrest record and seemed to be following in the footsteps of two brothers who'd been expelled from school. Eddie Bocanegra intervened, lobbying for him to stay.
Then last summer, the wiry, soft-spoken teen, spent a few months with a sister who lives in a quiet town in Oklahoma. Returning, he cut himself off from gang associations. "I always felt like deep inside there was something better out there for me," Chaves says. "But I felt like it was too hard and I couldn't find a way out."
The vets, he says, helped show him the way.
"I identified with the fact that they had done things they weren't really proud of and they had made a lot of mistakes. They weren't there to judge us," says Chaves, a high school senior who has a part-time job. "Your brain is sculpted by the neighborhood you grew up in, but you can break free."
Richard Rivera knows about that. He grew up without a father, as did about half the Urban Warriors kids. His dad was a hard-core gang leader who served 21 years in prison for murder before being freed in 2011 when a key eyewitness recanted.
As a teen, Rivera warded off gangs trying to recruit him, but he couldn't escape their wrath. Once, while out with friends in the pre-dawn hours, he was brutally beaten with a golf club.
Shortly after high school graduation, Rivera joined the Marines and was deployed to Iraq.
As a veteran of the streets and war, Rivera says being a mentor "just made my heart feel good, honestly."
"We were not trying to say 'We're better than you guys.' Not at all," he explains. "I tried to advise them there's another way. There's always another way. ... We just made certain decisions. You guys can make those same decisions. Choose the right path. Don't be afraid to do your own thing. Be a leader, man. Don't be a follower."
Those words resonated with Sammy, who loves basketball, dreams of college and is tired of the constant brutality.
Sammy's own father joined a gang at age 10, he says, and "he tells me every day DO NOT get involved."
Sammy identified with Rivera. "He wanted to get out of the neighborhood, join the service and be somebody," Sammy says. "He knows how I feel. He understands me."
Sammy also heeded Rivera's advice: "'Walk away from anything that tries to kill your positive.'"
The second class of Urban Warriors begins this fall with a new group of veterans and kids from a black neighborhood.
The first group recently got together to tour a military museum. The hope is the vets become lifelong mentors.
Some of the vets say while they wanted to help kids, they, too, have been changed by the program. Angel Herrera, who served in Iraq, says he was forced to confront the wrong-headed decisions he'd made as a teen when he used drugs, hung out with and admired the wrong people — including an uncle who was a gang member.
For years, he says, he shut himself off from that past. "I put that kid away. I hated him. ... I was ashamed of the person I was," he says.
By talking with the kids — even admitting he had some negative first impressions of them — he says he understood himself better.
"I had to remember everything I did. I had to remember who I was," says Herrera, who works in the finance department of a Fortune 500 company. "It has helped me be OK with knowing I did have a troubled life and I found my way out of it."
Maybe, he says, his journey will touch some kids.
"At least they had that seed planted," he says. "They know that people who grew up in the same neighborhoods were actually able to get ahead. ... 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.