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Slain Army Veteran Served As Mentor To Chicago Youth

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Abner Garcia, a 23-year-old Army veteran, was killed in a shooting in Chicago on Saturday. He was working with a YMCA mentoring program called Urban Warriors, designed to help kids affected by violence. NPR's Audie Cornish talks to Eddie Bocanegra, founder of Urban Warriors and director of the program at the Chicago YMCA.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:


This weekend more than 50 people were shot in Chicago, nine of them fatally, and one of them was 23-year-old Abner Garcia. Garcia was a Student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, a U.S. Army veteran and an urban warrior.

And we told you about Urban Warriors on the show earlier this year. It's a program that pairs at-risk youth with military veterans. The vets meet with the kids and help them deal with the trauma induced by violence in their neighborhoods. Here's Eddie Bocanegra, the founder of the program back when we last spoke to him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

EDDIE BOCANEGRA: Kids identify themselves as soldiers because they live in war zone communities. And so when they made the parallels between veterans, you know, carry guns - we carry guns. They got ranks. We got ranks. They got their army uniforms. We got our gang colors. And the list went on and on.

CORNISH: Abner Garcia served in the U.S. Army from 2011 to 2014. He was shot just a mile from his house early Saturday morning. Mike Palaguachi was friends with Garcia. Palaguachi served in Afghanistan with the Marines and is also a mentor with Urban Warriors. He says Abner Garcia grew up in the same areas as many of the kids in the program, so they could relate to him.

MIKE PALAGUACHI: It's a huge loss. It's a big void in all of our hearts. I mean the guy - I don't even know how much people's lives he touched, Man. And it's sad to see someone like that go and go the way that - you know, what he was fighting for - fell victim to the same stuff.

PALAGUACHI: We know that he had done several rounds of the mentor program. The program runs 16 weeks at a time. Can you remember a story or a moment of time you spent with him that you'll remember?

PALAGUACHI: Abner will always just joke. He loved to box. He'd work out a lot, and you know, he'd always pick on me sometimes because I got out of shape (laughter). You know was just - rip on guys just to, you know, just to play around and get people out of slumps.

When I was there sometimes, you would talk about some deep stuff, and then, you know, Abner would always come out with a joke, kind of lighten the mood. He had a good intuition and a good heart, you know? He really loved to give.

CORNISH: I also checked back in with the founder of Urban Warriors, Eddie Bocanegra. He says the kids in the program are each responding to Abner Garcia's death differently.

BOCANEGRA: You have kids that are extremely angry right now. Some of them feel that they want to take vengeance. You have other youth - they want to continue to honor Abner and what he had done for so many other people, thinking about ways that they could help out the family.

And you have other kids who are just thinking to themselves, like, wow, if this happened to him, who is a veteran and a student at UIC and someone who's been mentoring us - if it happened to him, then it could happen to anybody.

CORNISH: In the month of July alone, there were 65 fatal shootings in Chicago. And this is the most for July since I think about 2006. Does this feel like an uphill battle for you?

BOCANEGRA: You know, it really it really does. And let me explain why. There's one thing when you have gang members that are shooting at each other and it's not justified, but there's some rationale, so to speak. But when you start hearing about innocent kids that have been killed just in the month of July, when you start hearing about mistaken identity such as an officer's son who was also killed...

CORNISH: That's a police officer's son that was killed, yeah.

BOCANEGRA
: Yes, a police officer's son that was killed, correct. And you think about victims like Abner. I can't help but to start grapple and wrestle with the idea, like, what I'm doing - is it really working? Is it really changing the way our kids are dealing with violence? What's going on with our city's moral compost? And I'm wrestling with that?

CORNISH: What would you like or what do you believe that Abner Garcia's legacy will be?

BOCANEGRA: I like to believe that his death will not go in vain. What I'm hoping is that people continue to stop sitting idle on the sidelines and get involved. How do we make our city a better city? He was in the forefront of all this, and I'm hoping that is his legacy.

CORNISH: Eddie Bocanegra, thank you so much for talking with us.

BOCANEGRA
: Well, thank you, too, for your time, and thank you for shining some light on Abner's life.

CORNISH: That was Eddie Bocanegra of the Urban Warriors program. He was remembering his colleague Abner Garcia. Garcia was killed over the weekend at the age of 23.

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