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Veterans find friendships, future at Community College of Philadelphia

PHILADELPHIA — When he turned 18, Eduardo Grob left his mother and his home in Brazil to come to Philadelphia and search for his alcoholic father, whom he hadn't seen since he was 3 years old.

Grob, now 25, didn't speak English. He worked at a fast-food restaurant and lived in a homeless shelter. He longed for a father and a future.

Jason Mays, 30, of West Oak Lane, enlisted in the Army a week after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, served in Iraq, came home suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and feared he'd end up homeless on the streets of Philadelphia.

Stephen Fortt, 38, of West Philadelphia, served in the Navy during the 1990s, then spent years running a Philly nonprofit clothing exchange for veterans and students. He worried that he had waited too long to get an education that would lead to a career.

Grob, Mays and Fortt were among 81 military veterans who graduated from Community College of Philadelphia on Saturday, in a class of 2,376.

They credit CCP's Veterans Resource Center and its coordinator, Steve Bachovin — mentor, favorite uncle, cutter of red tape — for making sure they received the crucial benefits of the post-9/11 G.I. Bill, including full tuition.

As Grob and Bachovin sat in the Veterans Resource Center last week reminiscing about their four-year friendship, Grob smiled and said: "I think Steve's relationship with me is all because of my girlfriend, Melissa Burgos. When he sees me, he never asks how I'm doing. It's always, 'How's Melissa?' "

Bachovin, wearing a bright red-and-blue Phillies tie, tried and failed to keep a straight face. "I keep hanging around Eduardo," he said, "hoping Melissa will see the light. My wife will read this and kill me."

Bachovin, 55, reflected on four years of mentoring Grob. "Even though I belonged to the smartest branch of the service, the Air Force," he said dryly, "I still connect with veterans from other branches, like the Army. So I'm able to help Eduardo."

Grob, now fluent in English and in American trash talk, replied: "The Army is the leader. We rule this college. Don't you understand that?"

A search for his father

Born in Philadelphia, Grob spent his first three years in a Brazilian-emigre neighborhood on the Olney/Feltonville border.

Then his mother left his alcoholic father, and took Grob to Brazil.

Suddenly, in 2006, when Grob was 17, his father contacted him for the first time in about 15 years.

"It was a big shock to me," Grob said. "My dad said he was in rehab and had been sober for a year. He invited me to come to Philadelphia and live with him. He said he would help me go to college."

Grob was overjoyed. "I wanted to start a life here in America, and get to know my dad," he said.

But the phone calls stopped, so Grob came to Philadelphia to look for his long-lost father.

He stayed in Andorra with his Aunt Edith, who drove him to the North Philadelphia bars his father would frequent, and left word.

Grob's father called. When they met, Grob said, "It was sad. He was living alone in a dirty room. He did not recognize me, even though we had exchanged pictures. Then, he was so happy, he hugged me. But he was so drunk, we couldn't have a conversation."

Weeks later, Grob's dad sobered up enough to get to know his son after so many years apart.

But when Grob's aunt moved back to Brazil, Grob was homeless.

He worked 10 hours a day at a fast-food restaurant, but couldn't support himself, so he lived in a homeless shelter.

He joined the Army and was assigned to the 233rd Quartermaster Company, which had returned home from Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"I saw so many veterans suffering from PTSD," Grob said. "We had a suicide-prevention class where a sergeant told us her husband came back from Iraq and killed himself. They had a little daughter."

It hit Grob hard. He will attend Temple University this fall and major in psychology so he can become a PTSD counselor at the Philadelphia VA Medical Center.

"I want to give back to military veterans for everything they've done for me," he said.

Grob lives in Spring Garden now with his father, who saw his son graduate with honors on Saturday.

"God is good," said Grob, who recently signed up for six more years in the Army.

With the Army in Iraq

Like the veterans whom Grob hopes to help, fellow grad Jason Mays struggles with PTSD.

Serving with the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq during the 2003 invasion, Mays guarded enemy prisoners of war and did roadside checks.

He suffered respiratory problems after a sulfur plant near his base was set on fire. Mays received a medical retirement from the Army in 2005 and came home with PTSD and a diagnosis of 90 percent disabled.

Mays said that Veterans Affairs rehab programs helped him psychologically and physically. Bachovin did the same when Mays arrived at CCP in 2008.

"He works with the Center on Disability here, which made my progress possible — giving me a lot of time to do the work, providing a quieter testing area so my hyperawareness isn't affected," Mays said of Bachovin.

Bachovin and Mays revived the Student Veteran Club, for which Mays served as president.

"A lot of us went in pretty young," Mays said of military service. "I was 17. Those of us who have been in combat situations, that's something we can't really talk to civilians about and feel they understand what we're going through."

But in the club, he said, fellow veterans understand. "When I started helping other veterans with similar problems, I noticed that they feel very isolated when they go back to college," Mays said. "The club was an anchoring point for a lot of us."

Bachovin said: "Jason was very shy, very introverted when he came here. He has blossomed into a leader."

Mays, who is president of CCP's Student Government Association, plans to attend either Drexel or Temple as a dual business/analytics major.

Because of his PTSD, Mays' biggest fear was becoming a homeless vet. He now looks forward to a promising future.

A Germantown store

So does Stephen Fortt, a Navy veteran who spent more than a decade running a nonprofit "gently used" clothing store in Germantown for veterans, students and low-income families before deciding to go to CCP in 2012.

Fortt still runs the clothing store to serve people who might otherwise experience what he endured at age 21.

"I know how embarrassed I was when the only thing I had to wear to a job interview was my dad's leisure suit from the early '80s," Fortt said.

"It was this acid-washed grayish charcoal with some funky little hairs of something in it," he said. "Two sizes too big. Borderline 'Miami Vice.' I knew it was bad. But I had to wear it."

To save fellow veterans the embarrassment of not having a nice suit for a job interview or another occasion that requires one, Fortt plans to continue running his clothing store while attending Drexel to prepare for a career in health-service management.

"I'll trust a veteran before I trust a family member," Fortt said. "When you're over in a war zone, the person who has your back is another veteran, so you develop a belief in people with a military background, who understand what you're going through.

"I'd never turn my back on a fellow veteran," Fortt said. "My heart is in helping people."
 

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