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PCC in the News

News: PCC Veteran A Model of Student Success


Waking up in a dingy motel room, isolating himself indoors with nothing more than drugs and alcohol on the day’s agenda to deal with his physical and emotional trauma from the Iraq war, Nathan Kemnitz knew he couldn’t go down this way. He was a Marine corporal who had managed to survive a blast from an improvised explosive device in Iraq, coming back to his hometown of Houston with a Purple Heart to a hero’s welcome. He had been trained better than this. 

“I was living in a crappy motel, not working because I still get disability money, not doing much but getting high all day and drinking,” said 29-year-old Nathan. “At the end, I didn’t even have a car, because I had wrecked it. I went to a good school, my parents were well off and both teachers, so I knew this wasn’t my lifestyle.”

Kemnitz enlisted in the Marine Corps straight out of high school and was deployed to Iraq in 2004. The then 20-year-old soldier had been on a mission in search of enemy explosives outside a Fallujah suburb when the IED detonated, blowing out his right arm and shoulder, and leaving him blind in his right eye.

“I remember being on patrol, waking up a couple minutes later, and not being able to breathe,” Kemnitz said. “I knew I had been hit by an IED.”

Kemnitz’s protective vest saved his life, said doctors, as did surgeons on the scene who kept him from bleeding to death. His best friend, who was standing next to him during the blast, was killed.

While at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., Kemnitz and other Marines were visited by Sen. John McCain, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and President Bush’s personal physician. He was also part of a group of Marines who dined with Vice President Dick Cheney at his official residency.

“At the time, everyone was doing so much for us and trying to make us feel welcome, but I didn’t really care; it was a really dark time for me,” Kemnitz said. “I could barely see, I knew my best friend had been killed, I was in and out of surgeries (Kemnitz underwent 25 surgeries to date) and I was thinking about all my friends who were still in Iraq and what might be happening to them.”

It was during this time that Kemnitz got hooked on painkillers.

“I was using them to deal with my friends dying, and what I was feeling inside, and not wanting to look at what was going on,” Kemnitz said.

After spending his recovery in various military centers, Kemnitz tried to resume a life of normalcy in Houston. However, his reconnection with old high school friends soon led to a steady routine of going to bars and drinking. His addiction to painkillers also grew into the use of cocaine and heroine, which resulted in a short jail sentence for possession of drugs.

“In the end, I was just sitting in my motel room alone, feeling resentful and self-obsessed about what had happened to me,” Kemnitz said. “No one wanted to hang out with me, because I had pissed everyone off. No matter how much you’ve done, no one will care if you’re always playing the victim.”

Help eventually came from Freedom Care, an organization that provides specialized programs for soldiers and veterans. Kemnitz’s parents had contacted the people at Freedom Care, who then reached out to the young veteran.

“I finally wanted to do something about my lifestyle,” said Kemnitz. “If I kept going the way I was going, I knew I would eventually die or be serving a long prison sentence. And also, I was lonely.”

First, Kemnitz decided that he would need to leave his hometown in order to have a successful shot at rehabilitation. He was sent to a post-traumatic stress disorder center in Dallas, and from there Kemnitz asked to be sent out of Texas altogether.

“I told them I couldn’t stay in Texas, because I was wrapped up in my old friends and needed to start a new slate,” Kemnitz said. “From Dallas, they sent me to a sober living rehab in Pasadena.”

Kemnitz arrived in Pasadena in 2011, where he learned about Pasadena City College and the PCC Veterans’ Resource Center.

“I was a person who needed help and they could see that fear in me,” Kemnitz said. “I had attended college in Texas for a short period after I got back from Iraq, but I had felt really alone. I was with all these 18- and 19-year-old kids who couldn’t relate to me. When I went to PCC it was different; they introduced me to other veterans. It had a really good feel, a great camaraderie, people understood me. It was a safe haven.”

“When Nathan first walked into the Veterans Resource Center, he was very quiet and shy,” Patricia D’Orange Martin, PCC Veterans Services coordinator, said. “I could see as the school year progressed that he was feeling more confident. He had finally found that support, camaraderie, and care that he needed.”

Kemnitz is graduating today with the class of 2013 with a 4.0 GPA. He has received three scholarships: the PCC Veterans Club Commendation Scholarship, the Academic Senate Scholarship, and the Rotary Club of Pasadena Scholarship. Kemnitz has been accepted to UCLA and is awaiting acceptance from USC. His first choice is USC, where he plans to complete his undergraduate degree in history, and then attend the university’s master of social work program.

“They have a program that trains you to work specifically with veterans and combat veterans,” Kemnitz said. “I finally realized that it makes my life more rich and full to help others who are going through what I used to go through. That’s what helps me.”

Release Date: 05/03/2013
Contact: Juan F. Gutierrez , Director, Public Relations
Phone: (626) 585-7315