Navy veteran finds new purpose at San Jac

Apr 28, 2023Courtney Morris
Navy veteran Tony Gamage
Navy veteran Tony Gamage

Depressed. Homeless. Aimless. That was Tony Gamage’s story 10 years ago.

Today, the 70-year-old tells a different story. Not only did Gamage graduate from San Jacinto College in 2022, but he’s continuing his education in social work to help others rebuild their lives.

Joining the Navy

Navy veteran Tony Gamage found a new course at San Jac.

The oldest of seven, Gamage grew up roaming the woods and pedaling a single-speed Schwinn past green fields in Maine. Meanwhile, the Vietnam War raged overseas.

When Gamage graduated high school in 1970, he enlisted in the Navy rather than wait for a draft.

After basic military electronics training, Gamage worked as an intercommunications fireman on a destroyer escort that sailed the Caribbean and Mediterranean. Although he requested transfer to Vietnam, the closest he got to combat was patrolling the Libya coast after a U.S. spy plane got shot down.

In Italy, Gamage met missionaries and committed his life to God. After his service ended in 1974, he spent 30 years as a missionary himself, ministering with his wife in Greece, India, Turkey, and Mexico.

Taking road back to school

After a season in Texas, Gamage traveled back to Turkey with family in 2009. But he returned alone, his wife separating and moving back with relatives in Greece.

During the next years, Gamage struggled with depression and anxiety, so the VA hospital referred him to individual and group therapy. While therapy revealed triggers from childhood issues, it also revealed other veterans’ needs.

“In the waiting room, we would talk, and everything seemed cool,” he said. “When we went inside, something would trigger people, and they would start telling what they were going through.”

From PTSD to traumatic brain injuries, veterans coped through isolation, self-medication, and alcohol.

“Witnessing that broke me,” Gamage said. “Their spouses didn’t understand. They suffered in silence.”

Broke and unemployed, Gamage filed for Social Security. In 2019, he got approved for disability for hearing loss stemming from his time in the Navy. This also qualified him for vocational rehabilitation services and higher education.

Although depression had him feeling like “flat zero,” a VA mental health peer support specialist encouraged him to enroll.

“Right before this happened, I had asked the Lord, ‘What’s my purpose to be here?’ It was only a month or two later the school thing opened, and I saw my reason,” Gamage said.

Starting college at 68

Navy veteran Tony Gamage
In spring 2020, Gamage took the chance to do more with his life by pursuing a social and behavioral science associate degree at San Jac.

Two months into his first semester, classes moved online because of COVID-19. Gamage worried about succeeding: His high school GPA had hovered around 2.0, and now 68, he could have been most classmates’ grandfather.

Despite challenges, he persisted.

When campuses opened again, Gamage found a study buddy and engaged in student life — from socializing in veteran services and iConnect centers to joining honor societies. Thanks to his Navy background, he also modeled focus and discipline to younger students.

“What an older person can recognize is you have something to give others,” he said. “You’ve been through a school of experiences, so you have a wealth to offer.”

In May 2022, Gamage proved he could make it. Decked in cords and stole, boasting a 3.72 GPA, he accepted his diploma as the most senior graduate in San Jac’s commencement ceremony.

Finding, giving hope

Now at University of Houston-Clear Lake, Gamage is pursuing an advanced bachelor’s degree program in social work and eyeing a one-year master’s program.

He volunteers for Texas Advocates for Justice, which helps incarcerated people, including veterans, navigate court and transition back to society. Eventually, he will dedicate himself to that mission.

“If you haven’t been through something, you can’t understand,” he said. “But you can understand an emotion like feeling lost, betrayed, sad. That gives the other person freedom to talk.”

Gamage understands both despair and hope and still attends monthly group therapy.

“I’m not afraid to tell people I have depression and anxiety,” he said. “Once you’ve had a serious case, it doesn’t go away, but you learn to manage it.”

Would he change his story? Looking back, he calls every detail “orchestrated.”

“Anything good is only God,” he said. “The ups and downs have all been designed. God has a perfect plan for all of us.”

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