Thursday, June 20, 2024

Veteran takes winding road to LSUS degree, identity

by BPT Staff
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Daniel Garcia restarted his college journey in 2016, seeking to find a new career after truck driving wrecked his back.

He tried college once before following a tour in Bosnia with the Army, but he didn’t know what post traumatic stress disorder was back then and “bombed out” of school.

Eight years after the restart, he has two degrees on the wall of his home in Lincoln Parish – one from Blue Mountain Community College in Oregon and another from LSU Shreveport.

But look closely, and there’s a different name on those degrees – Charles Ranger Williams.

While pursuing higher education to chase his dream of becoming a lawyer, Williams was on a separate but parallel journey that transformed his life in other ways.

LEARNING THE TRUTH

For the first four decades of his life, Charles Ranger Williams went by the name Dan Garcia, a name given to him by his adoptive family.

He knew he was adopted, but what he didn’t know was the name Dan Garcia wasn’t even his name until he was two years old.

He said the social services department in California took him away from his mother at age 2 after a misdemeanor drug charge, and he was adopted two months later, taken to the Pacific Northwest and had his name changed.

The adoption was a closed court case, meaning he didn’t have access to his birth mother’s name or the circumstances of his adoption.

“My adopted family was abusive, and I didn’t grow up in a good home,” Williams said. “I had a roof over my head and somebody that gave me food, but I left for the Army three days after barely graduating high school.

“I lied to my adoptive family and said that I had to leave that early, but really it was about survival.”

Charles had always wanted to know more about his biological family, but it wasn’t until 2013 at age 40 where his consistent pestering of record keepers in Santa Barbara, Calif., that he finally learned his birth mother’s name – LaDonna Williams.

He also learned of his own birth name (Charles Ranger Williams) and his brief life with his mother. His mother had later lived in Arizona but died of alcoholism.

Charles found his mother’s long-term boyfriend, and he said they’d never married because his mother wanted to keep her name in case she ever found her long lost son.

“I called my adoptive mom two weeks before I found out my (birth mother’s) name in 2013, asking about my mom’s name so I could know things like medical history and what I may be prone to,” Williams said. “My adoptive mom told me I was out of the family if I pursued this.

“When I was trying to find my birth family, what I didn’t know is that it was really them trying to find me.”

IN THE ARMY NOW

Back to the recent high school graduate that was desperately trying to leave his childhood home, the Army served as that escape route.

Charles worked in the motor pool as a wheel mechanic.

“I was such a horrible mechanic, I would do anything and everything to get out of the motor pool,” he recalls of his time in Bosnia during the mid-1990s. “I was a bull rider for the Army, but I hurt my foot when a bull squashed my ankle.

“So I became a truck driver, hauling Scud missiles and ammunition to the infantry up at the front.”

The experience behind the wheel led to his first career as a truck driver at Honey Bucket Portable Toilets.

The miles added up and the wear and tear on his back caused need for surgery, which took two years to get through Washington state’s labor safety department.

“After 15 years (in the truck), I was told I could go to vocational school or get back in the truck,” Williams said. “I had started on a general studies degree out of my own pocket while I was injured, but I learned that none of that transferred to a vocational degree.

“But I made the most of my time during my recovery and continued to pursue a college degree.”

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

When Charles Ranger Williams initially enrolled in Blue Mountain Community College in 2016, he did so under the name Dan Garcia.

But he decided to reclaim his birth name in 2017, and he said his life’s trajectory changed course.

“I’m a Christian now, a religious guy,” Williams said. “At some point in life, you get a second chance, and that new name was literal for me.

“After I came from Bosnia with PTSD, I drank and dabbled in drugs as a way of coping. Everything changed a little bit at a time, but I quit smoking and drinking and my focus became school.”

When Charles learned of his mother, he also found his biological grandmother in Arizona.

Through his grandmother (who died in 2017), he met and visited several of his uncles in Louisiana.

“My wife Jennifer and I fell in love with this area when we visited in 2019, and we decided to put down roots here,” said Williams, who added his wife still calls him Dan sometimes as a term of endearment. “The people here are very different and had a more positive state of mind.

“My wife and I were going to church every Sunday (at New Hope Baptist in Choudrant), and we didn’t do that until we moved to Louisiana. We got baptized on Father’s Day in 2023.”

Williams, who said he’d never voted until Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, became interested in politics and pursued a political science concentration under LSUS’s Criminal Justice program.

He commuted to LSUS from north of Ruston two or three times per week while working full time.

Because he ran out of time with his financial aid, he scraped by in his last semester. He borrowed money from a friend to cover the last part of his tuition and pawned some of his guns for gas money to get to campus.

But he walked across the graduation stage in December, two weeks shy of his 50th birthday.

Wrapped around his shoulders were yellow honors cords, a military veteran cord and a first-generation cord in addition to being named the program’s political science student of the year in 2023.

“We’ve come a long way,” said Jennifer Williams, who overcame her own health issues to become a general manager at McDonald’s in Jonesboro. “From coming to Louisiana to find his birth family to being ostracized by his adoptive family – it’s been a lot.

“But he’s done so well with this second chance at college. We’ve been each other’s support system.”

Charles followed his wife’s footsteps and is a general manager in training at a McDonald’s location in Monroe.

But he wants to use his experience with overcoming PTSD to help veterans like him.

He’s planning to enroll at ULM to pursue a master’s degree in counseling this fall.

“I enjoyed working with vets at Blue Mountain and realized that was a passion of mine,” said Williams, who originally planned to pursue law school at LSU before he discovered students couldn’t have full-time jobs. “It took me 20 years to work through my trauma, and school was a big part of helping me get through the fog of war.

“It helped me help other people. It’s about staying busy, keeping your mind moving. Have big goals, but it’s really about baby steps that you take every day.”

One of those goals is creating a positive environment for his family, something he didn’t have growing up.

His family includes daughters Parker and Carli and stepchildren Jace, Alea, and Stephanie along with a handful of grandchildren.

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