The ‘warrior’ at the Justice Department you don’t know about, but should

Abel Arocho approaches his personal life the same way he tackles his job.

When protesters storm the Justice Department in Washington, or whether the only commotion at the iconic building is pelting rain, a squad of private security officers stand guard to protect those inside.

Officers like 42-year-old Abel Arocho, who's watched over the Justice Department for much of the past decade.

He's known inside the building as the contract security officer with the big wave and even bigger smile -- which makes his story that much more stunning.

"I love my job," Arocho, who grew up in Puerto Rico, told ABC News. "My real job [though] is to take care of my family, and to take care of people."

After Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico and politicians in Washington started sparring over the federal response, Arocho flew to Puerto Rico himself and personally helped feed more than 70 families, he said.

After doctors told him he had three months to live because cancer had taken over his body, Arocho was determined to keep smiling "because it's not only you" being affected, he said. That was nearly 17 years ago.

After his two sons showed an early love for baseball, he regularly practiced with them at night despite working 12-hour days. Now they're both professional baseball players -- the "American dream," as Arocho put it.

"I never heard a word from him saying, 'I'm tired, I can't do it today,'" his son Jeremy Arocho, a second baseman drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers two years ago, recalled.

And after his wife was diagnosed with an incurable, debilitating disease several years ago, Arocho faced it with the same courage and tenacity.

"I'm a warrior," he told ABC News. "I'm a fighter. I never give up."

'I was scared'

Arocho was trained to put up a good fight.

He was raised with three brothers in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, on the northwestern tip of the island. After high school, he became a tactical operations officer on a police force in his hometown.

His father, a plumber, and his mother, a teacher, often spoke of "survival," but they also preached the importance of caring for others, he said.

Both of those instincts were called upon in 2002, when Arocho was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer that had spread all over his body, forming an apple-sized growth on his neck.

Doctors said he'd likely be dead in three months.

"I couldn't believe it, I passed out on the floor," he said. "I was scared."

To have any shot at surviving, he needed intense treatment. So his police colleagues and neighbors began collecting money any way they could, even standing at traffic lights to ask for donations, according to Arocho.

That money, with a boost from U.S.-based organizations, sent Arocho to the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, where he started receiving 15 chemotherapy treatments a week, he said.

"I could barely walk. I'd vomit, vomit, vomit," he recounted, wincing. "But I never lost my smile. Never."

He had to smile for his wife and sons, and for all of the other patients fighting cancer inside the hospital, he said.

"You want to see other people smile too," he insisted.

In 2004, surgeons spent 12 hours removing tumors from his neck, abdomen and glands.

He fought cancer, and he won.

"It really changed him and how he approaches things," according to his youngest son, also named Abel Arocho, affectionately called "Abel Junior."

'We are American'

As teenagers in Puerto Rico who dreamed of playing Major League Baseball, Arocho's sons would often ask: "When are we going to the United States? When are we going to America?" their father recalled.

He would tell them: "We are American."

And from Arocho's perspective, he had everything he needed in Puerto Rico -- his wife, his family and God.

But then the Puerto Rican economy slipped into recession, and, "I was thinking about the future for my children," Arocho said.

In 2007, he and his wife made what he called the "heartbreaking" decision to move the family to Anne Arundel County, Maryland, just outside the nation's capital.

"We didn't know anybody. We just moved into a town in Maryland and hoped for the best," according to the younger Abel Arocho.

Eventually, Arocho's wife found a job with the federal government and he found a job with a private security firm.

Jeremy Arocho hadn't joined them yet. He's actually Arocho's nephew, but he deserved "a better life" too, Arocho said. So a year after leaving Puerto Rico, Arocho labored through the paperwork to formally adopt Jeremy.

Moving to Maryland was a "really tough" transition, Jeremy recalled. "There were days that I wanted to go back so bad."

A particular problem for Jeremy Arocho was that, like Arocho, when Jeremy Arocho landed in Maryland, he spoke almost no English. But Arocho implored him to stay and keep trying.

"He kept saying, 'When you get older, you'll see what I was trying to do,'" Jeremy Arocho recalled. "And now I see that. If I were in Puerto Rico, I wouldn't be where I'm at now."

'Tomorrow you'll do better'

When his sons were in middle school and wanted to pursue baseball more seriously, Arocho bought himself the book, "The Mental Game of Baseball: A Guide to Peak Performance."

"I learned in that book that when my son got a strikeout, don't worry; tomorrow you'll do better," Arocho said. "Any strikeout gets you closer to hitting a home run, that's what Babe Ruth used to say."

Arocho helped his sons hone their baseball skills, even while supporting his wife's battle with serious health problems, including an agonizing onset of lupus.

"Even if he had to wake up early to take her to an appointment, he still took the time to take us out [to practice]," the younger Abel Arocho said.

It was, however, "a struggle" -- emotionally and financially -- especially after the pain ambushing his wife's body forced her to leave her government job, Arocho said.

At one point, his bank seized his truck.

"Those days were hard days," Arocho said, but "they teach you."

Jeremy Arocho said that he inherited one lesson in particular from his dad: "You can fail so many times, and you can still achieve what you're working on."

Last year, while playing for a Los Angeles Dodgers farm team, Jeremy Arocho won the "midseason all-star" award for his performance. Also last year, his brother was picked up by the Trinidad Triggers, a professional baseball team in Colorado that's part of the independent Pecos league.

"Look what [my dad] has done," Jeremy Arocho said. "My dad is my hero, because of the way he has done things."

'When you see all the suffering ... I cried'

Arocho's "positive" outlook and passion for success are not some sort of "persona" he puts on in public, according to his youngest son: "He's that way 24/7."

Arocho is also deeply religious, especially after surviving cancer.

He cites God in conversation as much as he cites old-time baseball legends. And on social media, he regularly posts homemade videos of himself proselytizing in English and Spanish.

But that passion and positivity were challenged in September 2017, as Arocho -- at home in Maryland -- watched Hurricane Maria devastate Puerto Rico more than 1,500 miles away.

It was the island's worst natural disaster on record, killing thousands of people and leaving many survivors without power for nearly a year, according to researchers.

"How can I get there?" Arocho kept thinking to himself.

As much as he wanted to help in the immediate aftermath, however, there was no way for him to get to Puerto Rico then.

For two weeks, there wasn't even a way for him to know if his family and friends were still alive.

"I cried," Arocho said. "You have to go to your knees and start praying, because it's the only way you can be patient."

It turned out his family had survived. And four months after the hurricane, Arocho took his wife and sons to Puerto Rico if for no other reason than to hug them, Arocho said.

But "immediately" after landing in Puerto Rico, according to Arocho, his uncle pleaded with him to help organize an aid effort to bring food, water and clothes to Utuado, a then-paralyzed town tucked between mountains in the middle of the island.

For nearly three hours, two vans packed with supplies and carrying Arocho, his sons and congregants from his hometown church navigated past overturned vehicles and "houses swallowed by the mud" to get to Utuado, according to Arocho's youngest son.

"As soon as people saw us, they flooded over," the younger Abel recalled. "Even if it was just a water, it helped them."

According to Arocho, "We fed almost 75 families. And I feel pride about that."

'Do with passion'

Arocho seems to approach his personal life the same way he tackles his job each day: Even in the midst of chaos, keep calm and complete the mission.

In December 2014, as protesters gathered outside the Justice Department to decry the police killings of two unarmed black men, national news photographers captured Arocho facing the crowd, standing still with his hands clasped in front of him and his eyes focused straight ahead.

Arocho's job, he said, is about "relations with people" and helping anyone "in any different kind of way."

He said he'd do any job with just as much heart.

"Clean the toilet?" he said. "I will do with passion."