Nov. 10–In the early 1970s, at 19 years old, Ron Ortega’s job was to remain planted in a tower on the U.S.S. Ogden and shoot a massive gun. In the closing years of the Vietnam War, the ship, filled with 800 Marines, stayed in the Gulf of Tonkin. Ortega provided cover fire for soldiers as they made their way to land to embark on missions.
At first, the raw power of the gun scared the Greeley native, who was 17-and-a-half years old the first time he pulled the trigger. Then he grew to like that sense of power in his hands.
But sometimes his shifts lasted three days. That’s why, when someone on the ship introduced Ortega to speed, he was thrilled.
“I could stay up for days,” he said.
Even after the war, he was thirsty for that rush. He spent the next four decades of his life immersed in the world of drugs.
After he got out of the Navy, Ortega got a job at the slaughterhouse in Greeley. He mixed speed with white cross, which is a slang term for a branch of amphetamine pills, and, later crack. The drugs kept him going, he said. They helped him work longer and harder.
In 1981, with laborers going on strike at the meatpacking plant, Ortega decided it was time to leave. He was tired of working in a building, he said, and so he got a job as a truck driver.
In the years that followed, he tried methamphetamine for the first time. The drug soon became his poison of choice. Meth had the same effect as the speed he’d been doing in the Navy.
“When I tried meth, I thought … this is it right here,” he said. “I could smoke a bowl, and I could drive all night.”
At his peak, he was making three trips from Windsor to Durango in a week and still finding time to take Sundays off. Even among seasoned truckers used to long hours on the road, that was ridiculous. High on meth, he could drive long after a sober driver would have passed out from exhaustion.
“I told them I took all my naps on my way down the mountain,” he said. “They didn’t think it was funny.”
As years passed and he kept using the drug, he also began to sell it on the side, while he kept the trucking job.
The money was the real hook for him. In those years — during the early 2000s — he lived out of his semitrailer and sold meth. The cash was good, and that was helpful when, through a complicated set of family dynamics, he became the guardian of his grandson, who lived with him from the time he was 4 years old until he was 7.
“Drug money helped me, but I kept him safe,” Ortega said. “He’s never seen me use drugs.”
The closest his grandson came to the dark half of Ortega’s life was one night when, at 2 a.m., his grandson walked in on him counting drug money. Ortega gave him all the change and the one-dollar bills and sent him back to bed. Shielded by childhood innocence, his grandson thought it was great.
None of it was sustainable.
When his grandson was 7 years old, the two of them moved into Ortega’s daughter’s house. Ortega was still trucking and still selling drugs, but he could feel the end getting closer. He knew police were watching him.
He moved out of his daughter’s house and lived out of his car on a monthly $1,000 check from the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs. In his late 50s, he finally tired of the drug world.
“I was more than ready to get caught,” he said.
Toward the end, he was arrested multiple times.
His public defender worked with the Weld District Attorney’s office, and eventually prosecutors offered him a chance at drug court, which is a two-year program that acts as an alternative to prison. It was either that or more than 20 years in prison, Ortega said. He chose drug court. Drug court emphasizes rehabilitation and therapy instead of punishment. It’s an offender’s last chance. If they violate the conditions of the program, they are sent to jail. Still, Ortega was skeptical of the classes and the therapy in the beginning. He said he fought it, and he admitted the program can get old after more than a year.
“The judge asks you, ‘Are you sure you’re ready, are you sure you’re ready?'” Ortega said. “And if you’re looking at going to prison you’ll say anything.”
Somewhere in the middle of that process, though, he learned he might be able to change.
“You got to be honest with yourself,” he said. “If a person really wants to change, they can do it.”
About a year ago, Ortega moved into an Oxford House in Greeley, which is a sober living community for people recovering from substance abuse. He’s one of seven people there.
On Thursday afternoon, he graduated from drug court, bringing an end to 40 years of his life with drugs. But he’s got too much to live for now.
These days he spends nights playing bingo or with his family, all of whom still live in Greeley, except for his grandson, who is 19 and lives in Denver. These days, Ortega doesn’t have to worry about hiding his criminal life from him.
He’s glad for the change.
“I’m broker now, but I’m happier,” he said. “I’m ready to move on with my life.”
(c)2017 the Greeley Tribune (Greeley, Colo.)
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