It was after a “post-traumatic stress event” on the Texas border that could have cost him his job that Army veteran Vincent “Rocco” Vargas finally admitted he had a problem.
The special operations Border Patrol officer, who had enlisted in the military in 2003, had served three military deployments ― two to Afghanistan and one to Iraq ― with the Army’s 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment. But he didn’t think he was hung up on any of the uncomfortable moments he had experienced there.
He had buried them down and, eventually, they manifested themselves. The smells in the air that night triggered an overwhelming response, where Vargas did not know if he was overseas in a warzone or on the border.
“Holding an M4; running after someone in night vision; wearing gloves ― the smells of an illegal alien running from me is the same smell of someone from Afghanistan,” Vargas said Thursday in a phone interview with Military Times.
By making the wrong move he could have gotten fired and spent the rest of his life in prison, he said. He made the right choice, but that night was a big flashing sign. Not all veterans wrestling with demons are so lucky.
It took a failed marriage, alcoholism and almost losing his career for Vargas finally to decide to see a counselor and make changes. And, also, to convince him to stop drinking.
There often is a black cloud over our military veterans, said Vargas, who left active duty in 2007 and is a drill sergeant, a sergeant first class, in the Army Reserve, working on retirement. When they get out of the military they are wondering one thing: Will I be a statistic?
“None of us raise our kids to be alcoholics,” said the now social media and entertainment star, who has been sober for two years. "None of us raise our kids to say, ‘Hey, you might commit suicide one day.’ None of us do that.
“We don’t do that in parenting, why would we do that in the military?”
Vargas, who after his time in the military and Border Patrol made a name for himself with funny “vet bro humor” YouTube videos and the “Drinking Bros Podcast." He appeared in the “Range 15” veterans zombie comedy film and “Brothers in Arms” on the History Channel.
He currently stars in “Mayans M.C.” on FX, which gives him what he said is “the most significant role in Hollywood for a scripted show as an OEF, OIR combat veteran." (It also caused Military Influencer Conference founder and fellow Army veteran Curtez Riggs to “consume Mayans in a matter of two days.”) It’s the “next chapter in Kurt Sutter’s award-winning ‘Sons of Anarchy saga,’” according to FX.
Because of his 180 and focus on bettering veterans, he now is going back to school to become a counselor.
Vargas will be just one of many “influencer” faces at Tuesday’s virtual Honor2Lead conference, streaming from Atlanta. It is an evolution of the Military Influencer Conference, led by Riggs, which had to cancel in 2020 due to the COVID pandemic, but is scheduled again for May 2021 in San Antonio.
In 2020 this conference is “all about leadership and learning to pivot in the current times we’re living in,” Riggs said.
‘Drinking is what we do after combat’
Vincent Vargas' nickname, Rocco, also a family name, was given to him by a friend who said he “looked like a bouncer.”
Growing up in Los Angeles, it was not a surprise Vargas got into acting after his baseball dreams died, though he only took a few theater classes here and there.
But looking like a bouncer may have been how Vargas got his current acting gig as a Hispanic biker gang member in “Mayans M.C.” If it wasn’t that, his tattoos probably helped.
“It was preparation meets opportunity,” Vargas said. “I have a lot of tattoos.”
Balancing the show, currently filming its third season, and flying home each weekend from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City to be with his wife and seven kids is tough. (He is not Mormon, he said, but is a Christian.) But it’s his main mission right now.
Not only is he a dad, but he gives the impression he is a super-dad, with a laser-sharp focus on family, taking time to coach his kids' wrestling and football teams ― even during filming.
He also spends his time on his weekly “Vinny Roc Podcast” (on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts), interviewing “cool veterans who do cool sh*t” and speaking about whatever comes to his energetic, class-clown, “old man dad” mind. He’s writing a new book about leadership and speaking all over the U.S. about military transition and how he got healthy.
For many years after his deployments, Vargas suffered from sleep issues from the “little and unexpected” things that haunted him most.
His sleep issues, in turn, affected his relationship with alcohol.
“Sleep issues turn into drinking issues because drinking helps you sleep better,” he said. And “drinking issues turns into showing-up-late-for-work issues because you’re hungover.”
Whether you know it or not, he said, service members are raised in the military in a drinking culture.
“You are taught drinking is what we do after combat. There’s beer waiting for us when we get there, and the VFWs are full of alcohol; everything’s an alcohol environment,” including gatherings and retirements parties.
Survivor guilt from missing a deployment that killed two of his close friends led to “drinking for them”: drinking for their anniversary, drinking for their birthday, drinking for the date of their death, drinking for Veterans Day, drinking for Memorial Day ― drinking for “every day I could think of.”
Veterans sometimes use anniversary days to punish themselves for the guilt they have, that others are no longer with us, Vargas said. It also became a way he identified with the veteran community.
The correlation between alcoholism and suicide is through the roof, he said.
“Now add post-traumatic stress to that, and you’ve just created a cocktail of suicide,” he said. “And that’s our own doing. ... We’ve shot ourselves in the foot.”
That’s why Vargas is pushing an idea of “365 sober” and taking one year off drinking post military to get mentally, emotionally and physically healthy.
The goal for Vargas is to challenge veterans to be better ― referenced in the name of his company, Beteran ― and to come at being a veteran from a positive mindset instead of a negative one. His dream is to start a “Veteran YMCA” in every major city, where veterans can come for counseling and leisure, and not just to drink.
Veterans need more self-accountability and a mindset shift to focus on using what they learned in the military to be successful outside of the military, he said.
“I raise my sons and I say, ‘You’re going to be successful one day. I’m going to teach you everything you need to be successful. You’re going to be great … There’s nothing you can’t do.’”
We need to have the same for our veterans, he said, and mentor them all the way through.
The first 1,000 registrants here for the Honor2Lead conference will receive free entry. The content also can be streamed “on demand” after Tuesday’s event.
Andrea Scott is editor of Marine Corps Times. On Twitter: _andreascott.
Andrea Scott is editor of Marine Corps Times.