Isaac Cortes: A Wounded Warrior's Road to Recovery

Isaac Cortes: A Wounded Warrior's Road to Recovery

Isaac’s story is not unlike many veterans that have returned home after fighting and performing any duty that their nation has asked of them. Isaac’s story is not unlike the many veterans that have returned home and tried to return to a “normal” life after living through severe traumatic events from war and now suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Unlike many that struggle on a day to day basis, Isaac Cortes found that tennis has been a way to help him heal his battered mind and soul.

A veteran of the Army, Air Force and Navy, Isaac Cortes served as an Air Force Journeyman during the Iraq War. Cortes started his career in the Army and reserve in 1980 until 1986 as a combat medic. “I worked at the Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital for 10 years in between my first six years of active service with the hopes of becoming a physician,“ said Cortes. His medical training and background along with a concentration in pharmacology allowed Cortes to join the naval reserve with the intent to broaden his medical skills. He was also assigned to the Green Side meaning that his duty as a naval corpsman would entail being attached with the Marines if deployed out of camp from Pendleton, California. From 1998 to 2000, he was selected to train with Seal Team Four based then at Roosevelt road in Puerto Rico in August 2000. “During my time with the Navy, it gave me the desire will and determination to train hard. However because of my age and naval promotion structure, I was heavily recruited by the Air Force. They were looking for someone with medical background training that would fit their medical readiness for deployment. The Air Force also guaranteed me a promotion and gave me a better opportunity to fulfill my future education aspirations. It was during my tour in Iraq from 2003-2004 as an Air Force Journeyman that I served with the Air Force 447 Expeditionary Staging Unit and exposed me to many negative elements,” said Cortes.

After being an active soldier for over 12 years, Isaac’s service was given a medical discharge in 2010 after 6 years of being in what the armed services calls the “medical hole.” ” I was still technically active in the service, but since I was being treated by the VA. They leave you active until they can determine if you’re still fit for service. I had suffered from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and a pending mild to moderate Traumatic Brain Injury only so far recognized by the Veteran hospital physician, but not the military. In 2004, I was sent home later that year by the military doctors,” said Cortes.

Since 2004, Cortes has been actively treated by the VA with medications. “I have sleep and anger issues that hamper me from interacting with people,” Cortes said while reflecting back on the time when he was in a dark place. “None of the meds helped me. I tried everything from meditation, therapy, jujitsu and nothing seemed to help me heal.”

It wasn’t until 2015 that Cortes would be introduced to the idea of tennis by an acquaintance that he met at the VA hospital. “I grew up in Spanish Harlem in Manhattan and didn’t understand how it was played or really anything about it,” commented Cortes. “I played baseball, roller hockey and basketball when I was younger.” Tennis is foreign to many younger players growing up in the inner city.

Isaac’s acquaintance at the VA would tell him of a tennis camp that took place out in San Diego for wounded warriors. “I wasn’t thrilled with going to the camp at first, but liked the idea of going to San Diego,” smiled Cortes as he recalls his first trip to the San Diego Wounded Warrior Tennis Program which is run and operated by the San Diego District Tennis Association, a local affiliated chapter of the USTA. After submitting his application to attend the tennis camp that offers veterans from all of the armed services to attend, Cortes was accepted to attend the five day camp in 2015. “Tennis can be a bit intimidating as there is so much to learn, but I wish I had found it earlier after my service ended.”

Similar to many people that never played tennis before, Isaac didn’t know that tennis had what he was looking for. “Veterans are very disciplined and more rigid. They want structure in their life and don’t think that tennis can help meet that demand that they need. It wasn’t until a few days into the camp that I realized that I noticed a change in my attitude and I felt that my anxiety and tension was being released after playing,” said Cortes.

After returning home, Cortes determined that tennis was the way he could find healing. Steven Kappes, the Director of the tennis camp, referred Cortes to Janet Lefkowitz, the Program Director and Head of Tennis Programs at Help Expand Recreation Opportunities (HERO) in Ardsley, NY. Lefkowitz then connected Isaac to Coach Pat Rogers and Yonkers Tennis Center. HERO aids men, women and children with development disabilities, brain damage, and cerebral palsy with finding program providers to help them get started in different activities. “It is really thanks to Steve and Janet that Isaac was able to start playing tennis with me,” said Coach Pat.

Due to his PTSD, camaraderie and trust are issues for Isaac. “It’s difficult for me to trust people, but I found Coach Pat to be trustworthy and he really cared,” said Cortes as he paused with tears coming down his face thinking about Pat’s efforts to help him learn the game and start enjoying life again. “Isaac has played with me once a week for the past few months and we’re happy that we can help be a part of his solution. Tennis is a powerful sport. It’s about connections and people,” commented Coach Pat. As a thank you for his service, Yonkers Tennis provides all of Isaac’s tennis complimentary.

There are many reasons why people start a sport or activity. For Isaac, it’s an opportunity to focus on the present and not the past. “Tennis gives me an escape from all of the horror that I faced. I can take my frustrations out on the ball and release all of the negative feelings that can build up.” The life of a soldier is different than most Cortes reflects, “we’re trained in the service from the beginning that you don’t talk about your experiences. You’re supposed to lock down and not be open, but when you go through trauma, there are images stuck in your mind that you need to let out.”

Since starting to play tennis, he’s improved physically, mentally, and emotionally. “I’ve lost 25 pounds since I started and been able to become more open with my wife, who’s my primary caregiver, and heal our relationship, “said Cortes. “My PTSD has damaged my family. I have three kids that I pushed away while I was struggling to cope with civilian life and I’m hoping one day that they will join me and my wife on the tennis court.”

Isaac believes his life has changed for the better since finding tennis. “It has become my passion. I think about it 24/7 and now I watch YouTube videos that can help improve my game.” He adds, “it has kept my mind focused, especially since I’ve had memory issues.” His hard work throughout the last seven months with Coach Pat showed when he returned to the Wounded Warrior Camp this past spring. “I came in second in my division and the director was impressed with how I improved my skills,” said Cortes.

In addition to his weekly tennis time with Coach Pat, Isaac also uses music therapy for relief. “I have a routine of playing tennis to start me on relieving my stress and tension, and then play the piano in addition to help me with my depression, “commented Cortes. He would also take a trip to Israel with other wounded warriors funded by the Heros to Heros Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to serving veterans with PTSD and Moral injury. “The trip to Israel was recommended by a friend that is also a disabled veteran and the founder, Judy Schaeffer. This trip would help me to continue to open my mind to new opportunities, like tennis, that can help my healing,” said Cortes.

Now that he is a convert to the “tennis is life” philosophy, he’d like to share his newfound passion with more vets. “I’d like to help open a camp like the one in San Diego for my fellow veterans on the east coast. There are so many that are struggling that would benefit from tennis. I am living proof that tennis can heal and I want to pay it forward and help more people.”