A San Mateo man was among the former servicemen and women honored Wednesday at the California Assembly's Fifth Annual Veteran of the Year Luncheon.
Justin M. Chavez, 30, served in the United States Marine Corps from 2002 to 2005 and now works with veterans seeking jobs or shelter, according to a statement from the office of Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo.
Chavez is the lead case manager at the Next Step Center, an affiliate of the Vietnam Veterans of California, which has an office at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' campus in Menlo Park.
"Helping the men and women who have served our country in uniform return to the workforce in civilian life is mission critical for the U.S.," Hill said in the statement.
"Individuals like Justin Chavez who help veterans -- especially those with special needs -- find jobs and homes are heroes to the people they aid and to their communities. I'm pleased to name Justin as the Veteran of the Year for the 19th Assembly District," Hill said.
The average unemployment rate among recent veterans rose to 12.7 percent in May, according to the U.S. Bureau Labor Statistics.
Among some service branches, the average unemployment rate is even higher. The average rate among some returning National Guard veterans is as high as 20 percent, prompting Hill and other California lawmakers to strongly support "Work for Warriors."
The National Guard pilot program helps veterans of the service transition back into the civilian workforce.
Born in New Orleans and raised in Belize, Chavez enlisted in the Marine Corps in 2002, attained the rank of corporal and served as a division manager at Camp Lejeune, N.C., where he supervised the legal and administrative clerks of the S-1 Division, which provided administrative support to the 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion.
He was honorably discharged in 2005. Using G.I. Bill benefits, Chavez earned a bachelor of science degree in business management from Arizona State University. He began working with Next Step Center in March 2010.
"Justin Chavez embodies the term 'Veteran's Service Professional,' " said Jay Sands, site director of the Next Step Center.
"Quiet and compassionate, Justin works daily in his position as a case manager at Next Step Center to help veterans successfully reintegrate into society. His role has never been more difficult. With the recent end of hostilities in Iraq and the current drawdown of service members, more and more veterans are struggling to re-enter their communities," he said.
"It takes dedicated professionals with an intense understanding of veterans and their issues to help them find housing, enter employment, begin treatment, and engage in community services. For Justin, no job is too big or too small, no challenge is too great, and he has never 'left a man behind.' Justin and his team successfully prevented homelessness or rapidly re-housed over 366 veteran families in the last nine months working in the Supportive Services for Families grant through the DVA. During this time Justin helped to find his veterans employment, treatment, housing, services, and worked towards the veteran finding his/her own dignity," Sands said.
"The work that Justin and the staff at Next Step do provides the first step towards recovery and gainful employment following some type of tragedy in the vet's life," said San Mateo County Veterans Service Officer Jeffrey D. Young.
Veterans who are homeless, have substance abuse issues, or face other challenges visit the Next Step center to "renew their sense of community and begin their transition back to the workplace," Young said. "Many find that Next Step is the starting point to a new life."
Sands said, "The need for veterans services in our region has never been greater. In 2012 the Next Step Center was visited by veterans 2,400 times and rendered nearly 4,000 requested services. We could not have achieved so much in these hard times without the dedication and professionalism exhibited by Justin Chavez. We are extremely proud and thankful of his service."