GRAD SPEAK: Making Moves with Juan De La Cruz Ortiz

  • Drew Poplin

On a warm November day in Orlando, Juan De La Cruz Ortiz stands surrounded by his loved ones, taking in the full weight of his incredible journey. A man of faith, he has a wonderful family, a supportive community of friends, and is working in a field in which he is passionate. Life is good.

You’d be mistaken, however, if you thought that life was always easy for him. For Juan, he’s had to overcome a lot in order to find himself in the place he is today.


Growing up in a rough neighborhood in Puerto Rico, Juan’s exposure to firearms was initially rooted in trepidation. As Juan describes, “I was introduced in a bit of a different way [to firearms] because of the way I grew up. I grew up in areas that were really poor and there was a lot of crime. So I already knew about guns. Not like I was an expert, but I knew about guns and firearms [ever] since I was very little because I would hear the gunfire.”

He then uses an example in the form of a story from his childhood. According to him, one night in his neighborhood, the police conducted a raid on a local gang location. Unfortunately, things went haywire. In the midst of the gunfire, a little girl of 3 years old was struck with a bullet. Fortunately, the little girl survived, but this illustrates the type of environment where Juan grew up. Realizing that greener pastures were needed, his family decided to move to the United States. Before long, a 12-year-old Juan would restart his life in Connecticut.

Acclimating to a New Environment

Upon arriving in the U.S., Juan focused his efforts on embracing the culture of his new home. According to him, “I took myself completely out of that environment. I was very ambitious when it came to getting ahead and I knew that I needed to surround myself with a lot of positivity to be able to get ahead in life.”

Ask anyone who is attempting to learn English and they will tell you that it isn’t the easiest language to pick up. However, due to his efforts, Juan was able to learn and speak English quite fluently. But the learning didn’t stop there as Juan would also set his sights on furthering his education.

Attending online school, Juan obtained certificates in various subjects while ultimately studying criminal justice, a desire that stemmed from his childhood experiences. He wouldn’t have much time to pursue that career path, however, as he soon found himself accepting the call to serve in the military.

From Military to Matrimony

Military service is nothing new for Juan’s family. As Juan explains, “My grandfather served in Vietnam and the Korean War. And then my uncle served. He was a pilot (who died with Dean Martin’s son in ‘87). So they were in the military and I had police officers that were family members too.”

Juan would spend 12 years of his life dedicated to protecting the United States. Pretty soon, though, his life would change significantly when he met his wife. Interestingly enough, the two discovered they had quite a bit in common.

Starting her service in 2002, she and Juan bonded over their time in the military and their similar upbringing. The more they talked, the more apparent it became that there was an invisible hand guiding them through their lives. They eventually realized they had grown up mere blocks away from each other, even spending time playing on the same playground.


Juan pictured with his family.


As a matter of fact, do you recall the little girl who was caught in the crossfire of a police raid? Well, she recovered from her injuries and eventually moved to America, too. After an evening of spending time with Juan’s family, the two connected the dots. They came to realize that the same hands of destiny (if you want to call it that) that had led the two to survive their childhood had also orchestrated their move to America, their meeting, friendship, falling in love, and eventually starting a family of their own.

However, for Juan, the fight wasn’t over. There was one big thing he would need to fight before arriving at the place of peace he finds himself in today. And it all culminated when he came back home.

Fighting the War Back Home

Upon returning home from service in 2019, Juan entered into a period of depression that threatened to wreck his life. As he puts it, “When I got out of the military in 2019, I went through a big shock to the point where I went through a major depression. I lost 30 pounds in 3 months. I was just going through anxiety attack after anxiety attack. It was something I’d never gone through before. Not even during the darkest times in the military.

He continues, “I didn’t want to leave the house. The girls were like, ‘What’s going on with Dad?’ I felt like I was just a body walking on the street. Life just seemed different.”

The sad reality is that Juan’s experience is not uncommon for those who have served in the military. According to a study from the Department of Veteran Affairs, the average number of veteran suicides per day in 2020 was 16.8. If you are a veteran struggling with Juan’s pain, there are resources available to help you.

Of course, in Juan’s and many others’ case, reaching out for help isn’t always easy. Additionally, where one finds solace is not always a uniform matter either. For Juan, he found help in three primary places: God, nature, and knowledge.

As Juan explains, “I would say the catalyst, first, was me finding God again. And then I started to utilize my loneliness, my free time. I started to turn that into a superpower and started reading a lot of books. I started to listen to a lot of motivational speakers. I started to tweak my mind by doing meditation and it only took me about 3 months to kind of feel the lift of the effort.”

Recalling how spending time in nature was also therapeutic, Juan said, “I was only spending time inside. So I started to spend a lot of time outside and that lifted me up. I still felt a certain way, but I was able to fight off all the things I would feel emotionally and physically, and just turned them into… I call it a superpower. I just utilized the time to be able to learn more and more and more.”

Joining the SDI Family

Now reinvigorated and with his mental health on the right track, Juan continued utilizing this superpower as he searched for new avenues to explore. Before long, he would stumble across an opportunity to satiate his thirst for knowledge of firearms with Sonoran Desert Institute (SDI). In 2022, he started this journey by enrolling in the Certificate in Firearms Technology – Gunsmithing (CFT-G) program.

Now, being a father of four, working a full-time job, and going to school is certainly a lot to juggle. However, Juan was able to manage all of this because he genuinely enjoyed learning that much. As he describes it, “I was a little worried about how I was going to be able to juggle the time with how busy we were. But then when I started, I started to have a lot of fun doing the writing and all the stuff like that. It actually helped me with everything I was going through. It kept me busy.”

The more he dug in, the more his passion for gunsmithing grew. Pretty soon, he would graduate from the CFT-G program, and almost immediately, he jumped back in to obtain his Associate of Science in Firearms Technology (ASFT) degree as well.

From the Intro to Firearms class, to breaking down rifles (an experience new to him), to even hand-checkering, Juan continued to soak up as much as he could. Finally, in 2023, Juan’s SDI chapter was over when he graduated from the ASFT program.

Looking Towards the Future

As the bright Florida sun reflects off Juan De La Cruz Ortiz’s glasses, he takes a deep breath, having just spent the last 30 minutes of this gorgeous day reflecting on everything that has brought him this far. After recounting all the trials and tribulations he’s gone through, we’re interrupted by the sound of kids at play. A grin comes across his face, and the moment serves as a brief reprieve from the heaviness of the conversation. We start talking about the classes he enjoyed, how beautiful the weather was that day, and how he’s pretty underrated on the basketball court. Juan then takes an opportunity to ponder his future.

In the short term, Juan’s focus continues to be on learning more and perfecting his craft in the world of gunsmithing. Long term, he desires to teach others everything he’s been able to learn. In his words, “I see myself as an old gunsmith later on in life. Somebody who’s learned for so many years and got the schooling done through SDI and I can sit on a bench at 70-something years old and just teach.”

Reflecting on his time at SDI, Juan had this to say, “Going to SDI was probably one of the best things that I have ever done in my life. Not so much when it comes to just having a paper degree. It’s more the knowledge that was put in my hands and the doors that were opened, not just physically, but in my mind.”

He continues, “It’s one of the reasons why I wanted to share my story. Because of everything I’ve been through in my life, SDI was almost like the [cake] topper of me getting better. This actually was like the dessert—the medal for me getting ahead. And I was able to do it… I was able to do it.”

Learn More With SDI

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