When he reflects on his experience as a soldier in the Vietnam War, Willie Tijerina focuses on what made him strong enough to face the challenges he faces today.
The war taught him how to be courageous — he has a Purple Heart honoring him for it. But he believes that this courage doesn’t just apply to war, but to everyday life. And for him, that means caring for his grandson, Isaiah, who is autistic.
The 18-year-old was diagnosed as nonverbal autistic as a toddler, and now communicates only through velcro images of what he wants, needs, and feels.
At first, this devastated Willie and his wife, Olivia, as well as Isaiah’s parents.
Willie says that he didn’t understand what autism was, but two years ago, when he retired, he began to experience an emotional awakening with his grandson during what became an after-school ritual.
“He’ll go get the keys from the key holder and bring them to me,” Willie said. “I’m watching TV, and he’ll bring me the remote to turn the TV off, so that’s how it got started and I know he’ll want a ride because he’ll go get his sticker from the communication board and bring it to me. We go for a ride, and I just pay attention to what he wants.”
They go to McDonald’s for their usual order, and Isaiah high fives and pats his grandfather on the back. And for Willie, these moments are very special: Doctors first said that he would never show affection or love, but he knows that’s wrong now.
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