AS MARIN RESIDENTS and people all over the country celebrate Veterans Day, Jonathan Deras, a former U.S. Marine, will take a few minutes to remember his military service, both the good and the bad.
“I’m grateful to be here,” the 24-year-old Novato resident said. “Not everyone on my base made it back. I’ll probably get together with some of my brothers and have a few
By “brothers,” a term Deras uses often, he means other veterans. By that reckoning, Deras, who served in the Marines for four years, has approximately 21.5 million brothers and
sisters in the United States, 1.9 million in California and 15,000 in Marin County. About 30,000 men and women leave the military and return to California every year, a number that is expected to increase as the war in Afghanistan winds down.
In Iraq, one of Deras’s duties was guarding the base, checking vehicles as they requested admission — a job that could have gotten him blown up. “There was a huge risk that a car would drive up and explode in our faces,” Deras said.
Deras was lucky. “Everyone came back from our unit, which was very, very good,” the former Marine said. But he quietly remembered a time when fellow Marines in another unit on his base were killed in a helicopter crash — something he will never forget.
What got him through, among other things, was the Marine esprit de corps. “Being in the military, you hang with your brothers. You get yourself entertained doing whatever. We would get a big piece of wood and play darts with knives,” the 24-year-old Novato, Calif. resident said.
For Deras and many other veterans, transitioning from the military into civilian life wasn’t easy. “One of my problems was that I didn’t have a place,” Deras said. “I was lucky enough to have family in this area,” but sleeping on the couch and trying to do homework in the living room made it hard to concentrate.
“When you’re in the military there’s a very structured environment — not just how you work, but how you dress, where you live and how you go through your life day to day,” said
Jonathan Friedman, a spokesman for VA Palo Alto Health Care System, which serves Marin County as well. “When you get out into a non-military environment, that adjustment takes some time,” said Friedman, who himself is an Air Force vet. “Couple that with needing medical care if you are injured, and it can be very strenuous.”
Deras decided to go to school on the GI Bill. He got out of the Marines in June 2010; school started at the College of Marin in August, just two months later. “On the first day of school I went to every class I wanted and asked if the teacher would let me in, and I got into every one,” Deras said.
Despite his proactive approach, Deras struggled with the transition to school from military life. “I was so used to being a Marine and having a rifle in my hand. Going back to school,
I was dealing with younger kids who had not had the same experiences. Being behind a desk made me feel like, ‘What am I doing here?’” Deras said.
When they become students, veterans are “trying to transition into the college community and the population at large,” said Arnulfo Cedillo, director of the college’s Student Affairs and Health Center, of the 100 vets at the college. “Most of them have spent some time overseas in stressful environments. These guys have been shot at. If someone drops a book in class, they’ll be startled.
“They are used to military terms like ‘Humvee.’ Now they have to learn new terms. We
have a FAFSA, a financial aid document. They don’t know what a FAFSA is. There are courses they have to take to stay eligible for VA benefits. You have to take a minimum number of units and maintain a certain GPA. They are trying to do that while they adjust at the same time,” Cedillo said.
In response to these needs, the college in September opened a veterans center with desks, computers, printers, a sofa and a television. Deras, who is vice president of the Veterans
Association Club on campus, is a staffer. The place has been as much a help to him as the people he is there to assist, he said. “It has been a great help just talking to other guys and girls who were in the military,” Deras said. “It’s great we have a place to call our own. We’re able to help vets with information they need to get started.” Cedillo said, “We are
trying to say, ‘This is a place for you. Come relax here, talk to your buddies here.’”
Dominican University also has services for veterans, including a Yellow Ribbon program and vocational rehabilitation. Currently, 18 students are using these services, according to Sarah Gardner, a spokeswoman.
Ever resourceful, Deras is continuing to move forward. He now has an apartment with two roommates, one of whom is also a former Marine. His job at the college’s Veterans Center is a paying gig through the Veterans Administration, and he also works as a security
guard on the weekends. “I work Monday through Sunday,” Deras said.
The grueling schedule isn’t especially challenging to Deras after his experiences in Iraq and other countries. “My plan is to get a degree in criminal justice and go into law
enforcement, at the police department or the FBI,” he said. Compared with surviving unscathed in Iraq, achieving the goal should be a snap.
Interview by Janis Mara on November 10, 2012.