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Local veteran works out his post-service plan

Posted: August 29, 2010 6:50 p.m.
Updated: August 30, 2010 4:30 a.m.

In this recent photo, Veteran Affairs Program Manager Renard Thomas works at his desk at the Adult Veterans Re-entry Center at College of The Canyons.

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It had been a graphic day of battle in Baghdad. It seemed like the U.S. Army had fired everything it had to fire, Stephen Watanabe said.

But one combat experience stands out above the rest.

As he manned the gun at the top of a truck, Steven Watanabe’s only lifeline was the steel plate in front of him.

A sniper’s bullet ricocheted off the edge of the plate.

“Had that plate not been there — two or three more inches and he would’ve shot me straight in the head,” said Watanabe, sitting at a kitchen table in his Saugus home.

Watanabe, psychologically damaged from the combat experience in Iraq, spent the rest of his tour on base. To help cope with combat-related trauma, the U.S. Army put Watanabe through hypnosis sessions.

“It just relaxed me completely,” said Watanabe, who struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder. “I would come in regularly, once a day for about an hour. The anxiety was almost gone for that time.”

Now the 24-year-old Iraq combat vet, who returned home to Saugus in 2007, hopes he can use the hypnotherapy experience to help others like him.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill, which provides financial support for education to vets who have served since Sept. 11, 2001, has allowed Watanabe to return to school to pursue part-time work. The Saugus resident attends Bryan College for personal training and the Hypnosis Motivation Institute.

Watanabe pays for the hypnotherapy classes but the GI bill covers the expenses of his physical training studies.

“It takes care of you,” he said.

By combining the two practices, he believes he can help other vets — and general clients — experience the same relief he did.

“It was the only way I could think of to help other vets transition,” Watanabe said.

Win-win situation
Watanabe can testify that military service does not always transfer over into a civilian career.

Returning to school wasn’t the high school graduate’s first choice. But months of installing water heaters helped change his mind.

When young veterans return from war, their first inclination might not be to return to school for a degree, said Renard Thomas, College of the Canyon’s veteran affairs program manager.

“But when you’re faced with the option of not having any money and going to school, usually you’re going to go back to school,” Thomas said.

Education is vital to keep up in the job market, said Karl DeVries, outreach specialist for the Vet Center in Sepulveda. A series of federal and state benefits give veterans plenty of reason to pursue that education.

“It’s really to the veterans’ disadvantage if they don’t use their benefits,” DeVries said.

Returning to school for a four-year degree is not the only option. The GI Bill doesn’t discriminate between vets who want a four-year degree and those who want to pursue vocational education.

In August 2009, the bill became effective for training. Approved training under the Post-9/11 GI Bill includes graduate and undergraduate degrees, and vocational or technical training, according the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs website.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill pays tuition based upon the highest in-state tuition charged by a public educational institution in the state where the school is located, the website says. The amount of support a veteran can receive depends on place of residence and what type of degree being pursued.

Depending on individual eligibility, the bill may also cover expenses for textbooks, housing and more.

“Sometimes a vocation or certificate might serve them better based on their personal goals,” Thomas said. “They want a fast track to a good job.”

Vets who can go back to school and find an accompanying vocational program face a “win-win” opportunity, Thomas said.
Pairing work, education

David Curry, a student at the University of California, Irvine, believes this is the best combination for veterans. The fifth-year sociology and economics student conducted an academic study on military transition and combat reintegration. Specifically, he studied 34 veterans and evaluated the two-to-four-day transition programs military members undergo before leaving the service. 

“Essentially, these programs teach exiting service members how to write a resume, interviewing skills — a lot of it is giving you access to a bunch of job sites and a job bank,” he said. “It really doesn’t touch on the process of what it’s like to apply and enroll in an institution of higher education for the process of planning a job.”

Curry, 29, is a Marine Corp. veteran. He was a combat infantryman.

“If I’m an infantryman, my skills don’t translate into being an engineer or in (information technology),” he said. “They don’t have the hard skills those industries desire.”

That is where education comes in, he said. Skills of leadership and communication acquired in the military are necessary, he said, but become null for employers without the coupled technical skills.

“Education and employment can’t be treated as two different variables; they overlap,” he said. “It’s all about continuing education — or your skills become obsolete.”

An academic strategy
More and more local veterans seem to be catching on to the benefits of the Post-9/11 GI bill. College of the Canyons has been on the receiving end of this trend.

“The Post-9/11 GI bill has dramatically increased our population,” Thomas said. “One of the biggest challenges for vets is trying to decide, when they get out, what they are going to do.”

“A lot of times, they’ll choose to go back to school because that appears to be the best option,” he added. 

The community college recently opened a new veteran’s center to better serve the rising population of returned servicemen and
women seeking education.

More space means more resources such as a computer lab. Center staff members now have the capability to sit down with the vets and walk them through the process of applying for benefits.

“It’s empowering,” Thomas said.

Counselors are also available to guide vets through registering for classes or navigating the campus.

“The center opens up the ability to appropriate staff so we can better accommodate those veterans coming in,” Thomas said.

The college’s veterans center is also in the process of developing a program with local aerospace companies. A few dozen businesses
will work with the center to find eligible veterans to employ, Thomas said.

Helping other vets
Thomas said it is important for veterans to remain honest with themselves about their personal goals as they decide which path to pursue.

“It’s a process of discovery,” he said.

Watanabe is discovering several paths. He recently started up a part-time real-estate investment company with his girlfriend and cousin.

But without the ability to go back to school, Watanabe figured he’d still be installing water heaters.

“I’d be sucking at it and life would not be good,” he said.

Now, he is mentored weekly by personal trainer Jordan Yuam at the Virtual Fit Club in Valencia. With Yuam’s mentorship and Watanabe’s effort, Watanabe hopes to have a part-time business one day combining hypnotherapy with personal training.

“When someone thinks of hypnotherapy, they think you’re going to make them bark like a dog; the stage-hypnosis thing,” he said.

“But it’s so much more than people realize.”

Hypnotherapy has helped Watanabe get rid of certain anchors that trigger flashbacks. Driving under overpasses can still be a strong trigger for him.

“There’s always a fear in the back of (my) mind when (I) go under an overpass,” he said. “Through hypnotherapy, I started to get rid of a lot of these anchors to where I don’t even think about it anymore.”

Through networking, Watanabe hopes to find other young veterans who are willing to try a practice that has brought him peace and calm.

He said: “I just want to see other veterans helped the way I was helped.”



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