A Storied Veteran, A Higher Calling
Rarchar S. Tortorello laughs when he says that he could write a book about his life, but a quick conversation reveals just how true that statement is. Tortorello spent 20 years in the U.S. Air Force (from 1987 to 2007), taking him on adventures in the United States and abroad. Since his retirement from the military, Tortorello has settled in east Norman and dedicated his life to helping veterans in need.
The son of an Air Force airman, Tortorello was born and raised in Germany. “About 60 percent of Air Force ‘brats’ follow in their parent’s footsteps,” Tortorello explains. “So joining the Air Force was just a natural step.”
Early in his career, Tortorello served as a test control officer, administering aptitude tests to new military applicants. The impact of his work on young recruits would become evident years later.
While stationed in Louisville, Kentucky, Tortorello admits that he was struggling with the joint-service assignment given to him by his commander. “The work was more administrative, not necessarily what I wanted to be doing,” he recollects.
It was during this time that he encountered a distraught young lady. “She had hoped to join the military and had gotten to last step, but was unable to join,” he explains. “I was ultimately able to find a way for her to be able to join.”
Years later, Tortorello encountered the same girl, who immediately recognized him. “She said if I hadn’t been able to make that happen for her, she feared that she would still be pumping gas in Kentucky,” he says. “It had changed her life, and I realized that was my purpose for being there.”
Later, Tortorello deployed to Saudi Arabia, where he survived the Khobar Towers bombing that killed 19 airmen and injured 350 others.
“That particular night, I had deviated from my normal routine and was in the rec center nearby when the explosion happened,” he remembers. “I was knocked off my feet and injured my back and neck when I landed.”
Despite his injuries, Tortorello provided first aid at the scene. “We cleared seven floors, helping those who were injured,” he explains. “My office in the building was totally destroyed. Any other day, I would have been in my office at that time and would have been killed. I know that one choice saved my life, and that could have only come from one place.”
Thankful to be alive, Tortorello suffered from a great deal of guilt following the bombing, and was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. “While I helped save lives, people I flew over with had died, and those images stay with you forever,” he says.
For his efforts, Tortorello was awarded the Airman’s Medal, a distinguished military decoration awarded for heroic action and voluntary risk of life to save others.
His experience with PTSD led him to volunteer at the Dale K. Graham Veteran’s Corner, housed at Faith Pointe Baptist Church in Norman. Veteran’s Corner helps process Veterans Administration claims for military veterans and their families, as well as providing assistance with medical care and other necessities.
“PTSD wasn’t really a recognized issue at the Department of Defense until about 2006. Since my military retirement, my focus has been to help Vietnam War veterans with PTSD get as much compensation as they are entitled to. They have been living with this for 50 years, so I will do whatever it takes to help them,” he says.
“If we can take a homeless veteran and get benefits for him, or help a veteran treatment at a VA hospital, we can change their life,” he reflects. “We continue to work with them until all their claims are satisfied and we have gotten them all the benefits that we can. During that time, we become like family.”
Tortorello’s work with the Veteran’s Corner gives his life meaning as he contemplates the next chapter of his life. “I am working on becoming an accredited VA claims agent and plan to do this for a few more years,” he concludes. “I don’t know what will happen after that, but I know I will be doing something to help other veterans. We are each other’s responsibility. That’s why I do it.”