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George Carrillo went from banking to social services, with a stop on the Oregon political stage this spring.

COURTESY PHOTO: GEORGE CARRILLO - When successful fundraising put George Carrillo (second from right) in the top tier of Democrats running for governor this spring, he earned a spot on a televised debate.   In May, former Marine George Carrillo made Oregon political history as one of the top four candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for governor.

"I was the first person of color to actually reach the live debate stage as a gubernatorial candidate" this year, he recalls. "And I have no political background of any sort."

Carrillo, 43, said he ran because he believes Oregon can and should do more to support its veterans.

He brings an inside view to his assessment, as he currently works for the Oregon Health Authority as a program manager in its Office of Behavioral Health Services. In a recent interview, he promoted ideas like more access to mental health services and reduced property taxes for vets.

"Too many of my brothers and sisters are either sitting in prison or sitting on the streets, and that is not fair because they have made the ultimate sacrifice," he said in an interview. "We've been asked to do some of the most terrible things that anybody can imagine. Yet when we come home, we're not taken care of."

Carrillo was born in Chicago after his parent immigrated from Ecuador, and he joined the Marines right after high school.

Military service had not been on his radar.

"I'd never considered serving. It wasn't on my roadmap or anything," he said.

COURTESY PHOTO: GEORGE CARRILLO - George Carrillo joined the military in part as a way to pay for college. He chose the Marine Corps to do something really tough. Carrillo didn't have the means to pay for college, so he looked into serving.

"I saw an advertisement for the Marines and ended up going into a recruiter's office and really liked what I heard, especially the education benefits of it," he said.

He was 18 years old, "a hundred pounds soaking wet," with no life experience "except being in Catholic school" when he packed up to join the Marine infantry in 1997. At first, Carrillo remembers that he and his new friends would spend their spare time daydreaming about life after the military.

"It's interesting. When you get in, it's almost like, man, you can't wait to get out because it's so different," he recalled. "All of us were these young kids trying to be men, and all of us talking about what we're gonna do with our life after the four years."

"And then all of a sudden, the world changes."

Soon after the 9/11 attacks, Carrillo, who'd been stationed at Marine Corps Base Hawaii on Kaneohe Bay, was deployed to Asia. He can't speak to the specifics of the place or mission, but he did two near back-to-back tours. On the second tour, he was injured and left the battlefield for a stint teaching at Camp Pendleton. He loved teaching — he calls it his "best time" as a Marine.

"It wasn't boot camp or anything. It was talking about war, getting them prepared. I was a weapon specialist and was giving them all of this advice and tactics on, you know, how to come home safely. I really enjoyed it. It was just the highlight of my career."

But his injuries needed attention, and after surgery, he was sent home to his parents — now in Phoenix - to recover. The physical toll was enough that Carrillo received an honorable discharge. It took just a few minutes to sign the paperwork. But the uncertainty of transition lingered.

"All of a sudden, you get hurt. And now it's like, 'Okay, now you've got to go back to thinking about, what am I gonna do?'"

It was a familiar question.

"I found myself back in the same place that I was when I was entering the Marine Corps. What am I gonna do?"

Carrillo returned to one of the early reasons he found the military appealing: the GI Bill. He got a bachelor's degree in criminal justice, going to school while holding a job in banking with Chase Bank in Phoenix. He was looking into law school when a professor suggested he consider law enforcement instead. He went on a ride-along and loved it. To him, it felt people-oriented, with the humbling responsibility of coming onto a scene and trying to figure out what was happening.

"I wasn't necessarily being directed like, 'This is what you're gonna do. We're gonna attack this or blow this up,'" he said, contrasting his experience as a Marine with his experience as a sheriff's deputy in Gila County, Arizona. "It was trying to be a problem solver, trying to understand what happened, knowing that 99.9% of the time, I didn't witness it."

Carrillo's wife is from Oregon, and they moved from Phoenix to the southwest Portland suburbs for her career. At that point, he took a break from paid work to be the primary caregiver for their first child. After a year or so, he transitioned to a new social and health services career at the Oregon Health Authority, where he remains today.

Another political run is still potentially ahead. After losing the Democratic nomination for governor, he wound up endorsing Republican candidate Christine Drazan, although he remains registered as a Democrat.

"I have not left the Democratic Party, he said. "I'm still a Democrat, but I think that we need to be able to do better."

Editor's note: This story appears in 2022 Salute to Veterans, a special publication in print and online by Pamplin Media Group to celebrate the stories of veterans.

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