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Stetson student, Marine looks to the law to help other veterans


Javier Centonzio wore his Marine dress blues — midnight blue jacket with red trim and sky blue trousers — but he sounded like a lawyer who could have been wearing gray pinstripes. He showed the polish, the organized articulation he has practiced in class — that of an attorney at trial.

He stood before a movie screen explaining a documentary called Wartorn to fellow students from the Stetson College of Law. He had procured the 2010 film from HBO and rented the Hickman Theater in Gulfport to show it. He wanted the students to understand what returning vets go through.

Centonzio falls somewhere between the students and the subjects of the film. Like many of the soldiers in Wartorn, he suffers from the post-traumatic stress disorder he brought back from Iraq.

At Stetson, Centonzio is engaged in a trial of his own — one that pits his current self and his law mentors against his past self and the ghosts of fallen friends. He's half law student and half infantryman.

He seeks power. The power of purpose. The power of worthiness. Where does it lie?

"I have to learn the pen is mightier," he says. "I need to believe in that. I've seen sword. I haven't seen much pen."

Depending on who wins the tug-of-war, Centonzio will one day either be a lawyer advocating for veterans or a Marine in a foxhole in Afghanistan.

Even as he spoke lawyerly at the Hickman Theater, his dress blues suggested that, in his heart, the Marines are winning.

• • •

Other military veterans study at Stetson, but Centonzio stands out. He's stocky, muscular, tattooed, has a buzz cut. He often goes to class in a T-shirt. He approaches his heavy schedule and studies with a Marine's ooh-rah. He wears earbuds to block out the tinnitus from the old explosions.

He's already 30, a high school dropout from Kansas City, Mo., who earned his diploma in the Job Corps. He has worked as a security guard and a train conductor. Hitches in the Marines and the Kansas National Guard and determined study afterward brought him to Stetson on a full scholarship.

Centonzio has turned to Stetson professor Charlie Rose, himself an Army veteran, for mentorship.

At the center of Centonzio's PTSD is a dead best friend. He was Jessie Davila, 29, a fellow Kansas National Guardsman. He was killed by a suicide bomber in Baghdad in 2006 when he and Centonzio were just three months in. When his body was brought home, the funeral was picketed by members of the radical Westboro Baptist Church. Protesters had signs that said "Thank God for Dead Soldiers." That is what Centonzio and Rose have talked about.

He has told Rose that he goes to law school because to fail to make the most of life would betray those like Davila, who didn't get that chance. At the same time, he has told Rose that he feels extremely guilty to be at Stetson rather than in an infantry unit.

• • •

Centonzio volunteers at Stetson's Veterans Appellate Rights Clinic, under Rose's oversight. The clinic offers pro bono legal help to veterans appealing denial of disability benefits.

Amid two wars, "there's a phenomenal need," Rose says. "We've sent our best and brightest and they're coming home broken."

In his talks with Centonzio, Rose focuses on that. The clinic plans to roll out an online video for veterans going through the appeal process. He wants a narrator with credibility. He has chosen Centonzio.

In the summer, Centonzio will work an internship at the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims in Washington, D.C.

"Javier, you are called to do something greater," Rose tells him. "It's not a question of serving, it's how. In a foxhole in Afghanistan, you might help three others. In Washington, you can help thousands."

• • •

On the night Centonzio presented the documentary Wartorn, Rose sat in the back of the theater. Centonzio stood before the audience, at attention in his dress blues.

Rose called out in the darkened theater:

"Take a look at that man on stage. Someday, he's going to be in charge of making a difference."

Stetson student, Marine looks to the law to help other veterans 03/11/11 [Last modified: Friday, March 18, 2011 5:05pm]
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