Collin College premed students Ed Pestana and Paul Simeon truly have been there and done that: Both overcame obstacles, proudly served in the U.S. military and now are helping fellow veterans successfully transition into academic life.

Simeon, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who was awarded the Congressional Veteran Commendation, which honors veterans’ wartime sacrifices and peacetime community involvement, served in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Pestana, a U.S. Navy Petty Officer Second Class, served as an infantry corpsman in Afghanistan. Both sit on the Board of Directors of The North Texas Military Association and the Student Veterans of America chapter at Collin College.

They acknowledge that transitioning from military service into regular civilian life can feel like foreign territory, and both humbly embrace the effort to help fellow veterans navigate that transition.

Modest but Patriotic Beginnings

Pestana is from Hialeah, Florida, and eventually relocated to San Antonio, where his father worked days in the airline industry and had a second job as a baker. Ed Pestana Sr. Didn’t speak English and had been on his own since age 13. Life lessons from Pestana’s youth had an impact on him.

"My Dad always worked hard,” Pestana says. “He taught us that hard work determines your future.”

After learning his work ethic from his father’s example, Pestana decided to enter the military, and knew he eventually wanted to be a medic. He served eight years as an U.S. Naval infantry corpsman, and is now pursuing a life in medicine.

Simeon grew up in Smithtown on Long Island, and always felt a sense of patriotism. After high school he wasn’t sure of a path in life. He was inspired by his brother Bertie’s successful battle against testicular cancer, and Simeon realized the GI Bill could help him get an education after serving his country. Because he felt he needed focus, Simeon decided to join the Marine Corps, where he became a combat engineer.

His father, Paul Simeon Sr., worked through disease and injury to take care of his family. Simeon never forgot his dad’s example: “My Dad was a diabetic, and taught us to face what is put in front of you.”

When his father later succumbed to the disease, Simeon and his older sister, Dalma Alicea, helped run the household. Simeon, a pre-med major, sees a life in medicine as a way to give back, to make the most of his opportunity to get an education.

Thankful to Give Back

Both Simeon and Pestana served their country with pride and are thankful for all the support they receive. Because they are aware of challenges facing military veterans when they return from serving, they now do all they can to ensure other veterans can go to col Lege. Their philosophy is simple: Veterans deserve the benefits they are promised, and all of us should ensure they receive them.

Every year, thousands of U.S. veterans use the GI Bill to pursue a college education.Administered by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the GI Bill provides financial support for education and housing.And every year, numerous veterans find themselves thrown into a confusing world of bureaucracy, paperwork and academics.

The reality can be daunting. The debriefing prior to military discharge is quick, and many veterans do not realize there are delays in receiving college funds. In worstcase scenarios, veterans who are students are left homeless or living in their cars while waiting for education funds. 

Additionally, some veterans struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, brain injuries or other disabilities. Their study skills have eroded and much of what they learned in high school has to be reviewed or re-learned. While the Veterans Association pays up to $1,200 per year for tutoring, it goes quickly. Many veterans return To school while balancing full-time jobs and families.

Fortunately, organizations and peers are there to help, including The North Texas Military Association and the Student Veterans of America chapter at Collin College.

Pestana and Simeon emphasize that anyone who wants to help veterans should give to local organizations that don’t have a large overhead or employee list. The local organizations are determined to get the majority of funding into deserving veterans' hands.

Another local organization, Operation Once in a Lifetime in Plano, cut a check for a student living in his car with no questions asked, simply because Pestana and Simeon made them aware of the veteran’s predicament.

Both Simeon and Pestana praise Meredith Martin, a history professor at Collin College, saying her faith and support lends them instant credibility. Both emphasized that without Martin, much of what they accomplish for veterans would not be possible.

Overcoming Challenges

As Simeon and Pestana continue to serve others, they face their own Challenges head on. Pestana’s wife, also a premed student at Collin College, took her own life about six months ago. Despite his overwhelming loss, Pestana has not stopped contributing to veterans organizations or working on his studies.

Simeon admires his friend, saying the way he’s faced such a huge tragedy is “a testament to how strong he is, to how determined he is to succeed and help.”

He says the veterans community realizes that in life, as in the military, “you have to do it [succeed] yourself, but we realize that a little help can go a long way.”

Simeon has advice both for veterans who need help and community members wishing to contribute. “Just be a vet; call and ask for help,” he says to veterans. To the community: “Give to the organizations that seem receptive and are willing to help.”

For more information on where veterans can receive assistance, please go online to ntxma.org, collin.edu/campuslife/student_veterans_ of_america.html or operationonceinalifetime.com.

 


About the author: Scott Trapp is a teacher who lives in McKinney with his two daughters.