Marine combat veteran credits Swords to Plowshares in quest to become defense attorney
By HARRY HARRIS | (Walnut Creek, Calif.) East Bay Times | Published: December 1, 2019
OAKLAND, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — From the time he was 15, U.S. Marine Corps combat veteran Bruce Calderon knew his ultimate career goal: become a public defender and work in the juvenile justice system, helping incarcerated and at-risk youths get a second chance — just like he did.
Now 26, the highly motivated and self-driven Calderon is in his second year of law school after earning two bachelor’s degrees at San Francisco State University.
He does not hesitate to say that if it had not been for the assistance of Swords to Plowshares, a highly respected veteran’s organization, he never would have gotten to where he is today.
“They gave me everything I needed and if they could not give it to me directly, they got me in contact with the right agency and personnel,” Calderon said. “They absolutely turned my life around. That’s what manifested into me having the will and fortitude to go where I needed.”
The 45-year-old organization was founded by veterans, and its mission is “to heal the wounds of war, to restore dignity, hope and self-sufficiency to all veterans in need, and to prevent and end homelessness and poverty among veterans.” The organization, which has offices in Oakland and San Francisco, provides housing, legal assistance, employment, training and other services to about 3,000 veterans per year.
As with many veterans, Bruce’s journey has not been without challenges and missteps,” said Kevin C. Miller, the organization’s assistant director of communications. “At Swords to Plowshares, we understand the experience and obstacles veterans face transitioning from the military. Bruce has not only shown tremendous courage in the face of adversity, but also truly exemplifies the success of wraparound services and our vets-helping-vets model.”
The organization has received funding this year from Share the Spirit, an annual holiday campaign that serves disadvantaged residents in the East Bay. Donations helped support 49 nonprofit agencies in Contra Costa and Alameda counties. Swords to Plowshares will use the grant to purchase winter supplies such as ponchos, hats, thermal socks and toiletries to fill 125 backpacks for homeless veterans. The packs will be distributed during the agency’s annual Veteran’s Holiday luncheon.
Growing up in Union City, where he graduated in 2011 from James Logan High School, Calderon said he knew he wanted to graduate college and to go to law school. But he admits he drifted down the wrong path as a youth and was arrested for grand theft when he was 15. It was then he knew he had to turn his life around to follow his dream.
Because of his own efforts efforts to get back on track, and the mentorship of his attorney, probation officer and high school athletics coaches, the judge agreed to dismiss his case, Calderon said. His experiences helped guide his eventual decision to help young people caught in the same situations.
But first, he enlisted in the Marines at age 17. During his military career, Calderon served on both coasts of the U.S., as well as in Japan and South Korea. He completed a combat tour in Afghanistan from January 2013 to August 2013.
He met his future wife in 2016, during his last assignment in South Korea. After they married, he spent his savings helping her immigrate to the U.S. and learn English. And he said it was difficult to translate his military training to full-time employment. Money was tight and he also did not have any college experience. He and his wife did not have secure housing or a vehicle.
To complicate things further, Calderon was diagnosed with both mental and physical conditions that eventually led to a declaration by the VA that he is 100% service-connected disabled.
His life began changing dramatically after he walked into a Fremont veteran’s clinic and saw a Swords to Plowshares flier about their services. He took public transportation to the Oakland office, where a case manager “gave me all the resources I needed,” he said.
That included getting compensation for his disabilities and other veteran’s benefits, unemployment insurance, and an employment coach who kept him aware of jobs and skills-training classes. All of the assistance definitely improved his “welfare and morale,” he said. And perhaps most importantly of all, they put him in contact with the veterans center at San Francisco State University. Though he lacked an associate’s degree, Calderon enrolled there in 2017 after it was determined some of his military training could translate into college credits.
He has since earned dual bachelor’s degrees in political science and criminal justice, graduating in 2018 as the valedictorian in both majors, he said. He and his wife also bought their first home in 2018 in Alameda County with the help of a VA loan.
In the spring of 2018, he was accepted into Hastings School of Law, where he is now a second-year student, his goal of becoming a public defender possibly just a few years away. He has had several paid legal internships along the way, including with Swords to Plowshares, the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office and the Justice Corps at the Hayward Hall of Justice.
“From the first day of his internship, Bruce brought incredible enthusiasm and dedication to our legal team,” said Olivia Cole, deputy director of legal services at Swords to Plowshares. “Driven by his own personal experiences as a veteran, he consistently went above and beyond in order to learn how to best advocate for our veteran clients. I cannot speak highly enough about his contributions to our team, and am very excited to see where his legal career takes him in the future. I am confident that wherever he chooses to focus his efforts he will excel.”
Calderon said the encouragement and experiences he gained from the internships helped steer him back to his early goal.
“Those experiences leave “no doubt in my mind why I chose this career,” Calderon said. “It would not have been possible without the help of Swords to Plowshares. They changed my life and I felt this was the only way to give back.
“No matter what your background, or status, they treat everyone the same,” he said. “One-hundred percent, I would recommend Swords to Plowshares to any veteran.”
Share the Spirit
The Share the Spirit holiday campaign, sponsored by the Bay Area News Group, funds nonprofit holiday and outreach programs in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.
To make a tax-deductible contribution, go to www.sharethespiriteastbay.org/donate. Readers with questions, and individuals or businesses interested in making large contributions, may contact the Share the Spirit program at 925-472-5760 or firstname.lastname@example.org.