Alum who thought he’d always be a maintenance man now lobbies for disabled vets in D.C.

Jeremy Villanueva at DAV

Jeremy Villanueva is associate national legislative director for DAV (Disabled American Veterans), a national nonprofit that helps disabled veterans with a wide variety of benefit claim, employment, health and other services.

BY CHRISTINE BEDELL
Alumni Engagement Specialist
cbedell1@csub.edu

Jeremy Villanueva, then a 22-year-old war vet working as a plumber, was replacing underground steam lines outside a CSUB arts building one day when he stopped to watch the students walking by.  

They seemed to not have a care in the world.

“Can you imagine how cool it would be to be going into a classroom every day, to be going to college?” Villanueva said to another plumber.

“Yeah, well, that’s not for us,” his co-worker replied, or words to that effect.

How wrong he was.

Villanueva, the son of a farmworker-turned-factory worker and a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, not only went on to graduate from CSUB but was its pick for a prestigious D.C. internship and now is a lobbyist for disabled veterans on Capitol Hill.

Along the way he weathered financial problems, precious time away from his kids and nagging self-doubt that he could be more than a maintenance man.

“My plan was to work hard enough to buy a house, raise my family and maybe once I worked as a plumber for 20 years, the company that I worked for would move me into the office,” Villanueva said of his young mindset.

“But every time I thought I had my life planned out, life or God slapped me in the face and said, ‘There’s a different plan for you.’”

That plan is working out great.

‘THOSE ARE THE PEOPLE YOU LOOK UP TO

Villanueva, 36, spent his early years in Bakersfield and Taft. His father picked grapes as a young man and worked in a Bakersfield fiberglass factory while his mother went to CSUB and later taught school. He had an older brother and sister and younger brother.

The plan was for Villanueva’s dad, Val, to put his wife through college and then go to college himself. But just after his wife graduated and started teaching, Val died suddenly of a cerebral aneurysm. Villanueva was just 11 years old.

The family moved to Bakersfield after Villanueva’s father died. He didn’t get much supervision – his mother was working, raising kids and grieving a great loss without much of a support system – and his grades suffered. He did have a good senior year at Bakersfield High School, though, competing in mock trial and starting a branch of Young Republicans.

Villanueva meeting George W. Bush

Villanueva, who started a Young Republicans club his senior year at Bakersfield High School, got to meet then-President George W. Bush.

After high school he joined the Marines because his father had been so patriotic.

“He’d always point out military members and say, ‘Hey, see that boy? Those are people that you look up to.”

He joined as an infantryman in the summer of 2000. Everything was going fine, except for a broken foot suffered in boot camp, until 9/11.

“Of course, everything changed from there,” Villanueva said. “Everyone realized, ‘Wow, we’re here, we’re Marines, we’re infantry. No getting out of this, we’re going to get into a fight.’”

He was deployed off-shore of Pakistan to support Marine and Navy forces launching sorties against the Taliban in Afghanistan. After that he hit “a bunch of ports” around the world and returned home, in June 2002. He finally got to hold his son, Daniel, who’d been born 17 days after Villanueva’s deployment.

While Villanueva didn’t see much action in the Afghan war, he did in the Iraq one that soon followed. He arrived in Kuwait in February 2003 and a month later was part of the first Marine division that bulldozed through a huge sand berm at the border with Iraq and raced toward Baghdad.

“We got to a city about five days into it called Nasiriyah, the same city where Jessica Lynch and all that happened,” he said, referring to the Army soldier who was injured in an ambush and recovered by U.S. Special Operations. “That’s essentially where the fighting started. For the next 22 days we were in constant contact with the enemy, so it was like a firefight a day until we got to Baghdad.”

Villanueva in Iraq

Villanueva served in both the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as a Marine infantryman, banging up his lower body in the process. Here he is in Iraq.

Villanueva then worked to secure the capital city, participating in minor raids, capturing scuds and anti-aircraft sites, and fighting off what was left of the Iraqi military. Then he moved to Al Hillah, a mainly Shiite town with archeological ruins of Babylon, to restore order and help the local population get back on its feet.

Villanueva left the Middle East in September 2003 and the Marines entirely 10 months later. He’d not only broken his foot but beaten up his joints, blown out some cartilage and hurt his ankle. He also battled PTSD.

‘I JUST STARTED WORKING’

When Villanueva, then 22, returned home to his wife, Michelle, and their now two children, he immediately went to work as a plumber.

“Our family, we are workers. We are blue-collar workers. My father worked until the day he died in the factory.”

Things were good. The Villanuevas bought a house, sent their kids to the Bessie Owens Primary magnet school and got a dog. But then the economy tanked, and Villanueva lost his job.  

All the available plumbing positions had been filled by people laid off the month before, and Villanueva couldn’t find work. Not even a fast-food restaurant would hire a hard-working military veteran.

“I literally got turned down by Del Taco,” he said.  

The worst part came when the bank foreclosed on Villanueva’s house, forcing the family to live in low-income housing and give up its pets.

The only source of income Villanueva could generate himself was the G.I. Bill, so he decided to go to school. He started out at Santa Barbara Business College, then tried to get into CSUB.

He showed up with his high school transcripts but was told they weren’t good enough. Just before leaving, he turned around “on a lark” and asked if it mattered that he had a DD214 -- discharge papers.

The woman he’d been talking to consulted with a veterans liaison in the office and soon after, Villanueva had an acceptance letter.

“Next thing you know, I’m signing up for classes at CSUB,” Villanueva said. “That’s when my life accelerated.”

He had a huge smile on his face his first few days as a college student. He enrolled in History of Western Civilization, English and Political Science classes. He still wondered whether he was smart enough to succeed at a university but thought it a good sign when one of his instructors turned out to be a student teacher he knew at BHS: Jeremy Adams, today a CSUB Hall of Fame inductee.

“It was a sign,” Villanueva said. “This is what you’re meant to do, so just do your best.”

That’s not to say college came easy.

Money was extremely tight, even with Michelle working. Villanueva didn’t get to spend much time with his kids. And for a long time, he assumed he’d have to drop out of school and go back to work full-time.

Things eased up his junior and senior years when he got a part-time maintenance job from local businessman Greg Bynum. Still, when Villanueva looks back he’s not exactly sure how he made it through CSUB.

But he did. Impressively so.

LIFE IN D.C.

One evening after class, one he had to drag himself into wet and exhausted after pressure-washing a house all day, professor Wendy Avila told him about a month-long internship she thought he should apply for in Washington, D.C.

He’d be CSUB’s representative at the Panetta Institute for Public Policy, which gives students an opportunity to work and study in the nation’s capital. Because it was only for a month – or so Avila thought – he applied and got it.

Villanueva at internship

Villanueva (middle) interned in the office of Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock. Also pictured are fellow interns Anthony Duhon (left) and Richard Cline. 

It turned out to be a three-month program but came with a little money so Villanueva was able to swing it. He said he was interested in veterans’ issues and so was assigned to the office of Rep. Jeff Denham, a Republican from Turlock and member of the Congressional Veterans Jobs Caucus.

Villanueva did what interns do: clerical work, communicate with constituents, attend hearings and write up memos about them. As a Panetta intern, he got to visit the House floor, the defense secretary’s office and the west wing of the White House.

“Here I am a maintenance man and I‘m sitting in the Roosevelt Room and we could literally hear Barack Obama on the other side of the door getting his briefing,” Villanueva recalled.

When the internship was up, Villanueva finished his last two quarters at CSUB and graduated with a degree in political science and government. The only thing on his grad cap was a photo of his father.

“That was my way of having him cross the stage,” Villanueva said.

Villanueva at graduation

Villanueva graduated from CSUB with a bachelor’s degree in political science and government in 2013. He attached to his grad cap a photo of his father, who died when Villanueva was 11.

Villanueva started calling veterans services organizations looking for a job in legislative affairs. DAV (Disabled American Veterans), a nationwide nonprofit that provides all veterans a wide variety of free services, said he’d need to work as a national service officer first.

NSOs help disabled veterans file claims and shepherd them through the approval process. One had once helped Villanueva with a disability claim.

After two years of doing that work in Los Angeles, Villanueva was promoted to a position in Washington, D.C., representing disabled veterans in front of judges hearing their cases at the Board of Veterans Appeals. The family moved to Chantilly, Va. Villanueva’s son, Daniel, is 16. His daughter, Amber, is 12.

Villanueva family

The Villanueva family: Daniel, Jeremy, Amber and Michelle.

It’s been an adjustment dealing with snow and bugs and unavailability of some food. But the family loves when the leaves change color in the fall and everything blooms in the spring.

“There’s a part of us that will always miss Bakersfield,” Villanueva said. “But there’s some things around here that are great.”

Last December, Villanueva was promoted to associate national legislative director, monitoring news, congressional bills and other government action related to disabled veterans. He meets with members of Congress to discuss its legislative priorities, researches and develops legislation and testifies before House and Senate committees.

One bill he’s hoping to push would ensure G.I. Bill benefits are counted as certifiable income in the purchasing or leasing of housing. That could have helped Villanueva keep his house when he lost his plumbing job.

“If that bill gets passed, I will feel like I had my fingerprints on that and that I had made a difference in somebody’s life, that somebody who was going through the same situation as me could now stay in their home and not have to put their family through what my family had to go through.”

***

Before this interview was over, Villanueva made a request: That his father get his due in this story. He’s gotten where he is today, he said, following the lessons his father taught him before he died: you can be poor in wealth but with family you’re always wealthy; be proud of what you do, not what you have; invest in family.

“Everything I’ve done in my life has been to try to make him proud,” Villanueva said. “He was an enormous influence on me, on my whole family. I would feel remiss if he didn’t get recognized for all the hard work that he did.”



SUITING UP FOR WASIHINGTON

There was only one problem when Jeremy Villanueva got his internship with The Panetta Institute for Public Policy in Washington, D.C.: He didn’t have the right clothes.

So Wendy Avila, the local prosecutor and CSUB adjunct lecturer who recommended he apply for the program, asked herself, “What lawyers in town are Jeremy’s size?”

Her answer was David Torres, a well-known criminal defense attorney who like Villanueva is a Marine. Avila explained the situation to Torres and he said “Done.”

“He just cleaned out his closet and ended up giving him something like eight suits,” Avila remembered. “We had to tailor them a little bit … and he had a whole wardrobe.”

Avila went out of her way to help Villanueva because he impressed her both inside and outside the classroom, she said.

“He was always more prepared than your average student, he was always more attentive, and he always had this inquisitiveness about him,” Avila said.

He also had an urgency about his education. She learned why after running into him one evening in the downtown Bakersfield office building where she worked; turned out Villanueva oversaw maintenance there.

Villanueva told Avila he was married with children and working while going to school. Suddenly his demeanor in the classroom made sense to her.

“He wasn’t the typical kid just wandering through his education,” Avila said. “He had a purpose to his education.”

Avila and Villanueva keep in touch. She believes that had she asked him 10 years ago what he’d like to be doing, he would have said helping veterans—exactly what he’s doing.

“I really think he’s living his dream, and how many people can say that?” Avila said. “And he created that for himself.”