Settled in among friends, an invigorated Maritza became heavily involved in AIDS activism, connecting with a newly formed North Carolina chapter of activist group ACT UP. Ramos’s high school teacher John Davis (who was later diagnosed with AIDS in 1993) had been heavily involved with the group since 1987. After hearing of Maritza’s condition, he invited her and Ozzy to a late-1980s New York City ACT UP demonstration, where Ozzy stood beside Maritza in his dress-blue uniform, in front of 700 AIDS activists.
“The crowd went wild,” says Davis, now a H.O.M.E. director. “He told them why he was there, they applauded and they got him the most information they could get him at that point.”
He would rely on that information in 1991, when Maritza’s health began to falter. A caregiver certified by the American Red Cross, he cared for her full-time on top of his Marine Corps duties. One afternoon, Maritza lay down for a nap and slipped into a coma. Ramos authorized a slow transition from lifesaving medication to pain relievers.
Maritza died on June 1, 1992.
Soon afterward, Ramos’s relationship with his stepson, Wilfredo, became strained. Wilfredo moved in with his grandparents in New York, leaving Ramos to raise Tony and his nephew, Luis—who was staying with him at the time. Ramos also struggled in his career, battling with superior officers who frowned upon his single-father status. As his personal life crumbled, Ramos stayed focused on the Marines, dedicating himself to becoming its first-ever AIDS educator. Previously, AIDS education classes were taught by medical officials and Naval officers. But, Ramos says, “the Marines and the Navy are like oil and water.”
Ramos was later assigned to Portsmouth Naval Hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia, where he counseled Marines newly diagnosed with HIV. He noticed a significant number of Marines testing positive from all ranks and backgrounds, and the Corps was having a hard time catching up. “The Marine Corps didn’t know what to do with these people,” Ramos says. “They got better in dealing with them over time, and they carried on what we always emphasize: taking care of our own. But it wasn’t always that way.”
When AIDS became widespread in the 1980s, Ramos says that the Marines’ initial response was to discharge personnel following a positive diagnosis. However, by the time Ramos became an AIDS educator and information about HIV transmission became more widespread, the Marines shifted policies. Those that tested positive would be allowed to continue to serve as long as they did not progress to AIDS, and the Corps dealt with positive Marines on a case-by-case basis.
Meanwhile, his stepson was losing his own battle against the virus. Against Ramos’s urging, Wilfredo had stopped taking his HIV medications. He died in 1999 at the age of 20.
Despite losing yet another family member, Ramos pushed forward. He was selected as a warrant officer in 1998, and in 2001 he joined the Presidential Support Marine Barracks in Washington, DC, where he served until his February 2006 retirement, after which he landed his current job. He has remarried but says he doesn’t plan to start a new family.
As for his late family, he says he knows that Maritza, Wilfredo and Venus would be proud of his plans for H.O.M.E. “I think that they would be happy that I’m keeping them alive in a sense,” he adds. “Also, I’m kind of paying it forward and helping others that are in the same struggle as we were many years ago.”
H.O.M.E. recently reached out to AIDS-ravaged Vietnam, where it sponsors 20 HIV-positive children through the Five Loaves Two Fishes Foundation. “We’ve got 20 kids that we’re happy to save,” Ramos says. “And one of our dollars is a lot of theirs, so it’s easy to support them.”
Still, the organization needs a financial foundation. Ramos pursued Doris Buffett and her foundation at one of her speaking engagements in April 2007. He typed up his experiences with AIDS and his plans for H.O.M.E., knowing that he’d have only a few minutes with her. Introducing himself and his organization, he handed her a folder and hoped for the best. Buffett soon agreed to match the $11,575 H.O.M.E. raised to give Christmas presents to 28 HIV-positive children served by the Georgetown University Medical Center, as well as the kids’ siblings. “I was struck by the fact that he truly was sincere,” says Buffett. “A little boost at the beginning will carry them a long way.”
While H.O.M.E. tirelessly raises money to build actual homes with wide-open doors, its staff works for free and is happy to do so. “When we were in the Marine Corps we didn’t do it for the big bucks. We did it because we were making a difference and it was something special,” says former Marine and H.O.M.E. program director Lonnie Martin. “Once a marine, always a marine. We’re used to, say, helping the president reinforce his foreign policy. Right now, we’ve got to build this organization to essentially attack something else: We’re attacking HIV. That’s what the mission is going to be.”