Marin veteran’s new post: helping soldiers
After four tours of duty in Afghanistan in which he was a target for rockets, bombs and small arms fire, it’s no wonder Sean Stephens says his new home in Marin County is paradise.
He’s got a new wife, a new family and a new job helping military veterans and, despite an aching cervical spine that provides a constant reminder of the war he left behind, he couldn’t be happier.
The 44-year-old Stephens is Marin’s veterans services officer, a $56,000-a-year post he has held since February, when he completed an eight-month stint as a department volunteer and took over from veteran services officer Mort Tallen, who retired after a long career.
“I am the luckiest man in the world,” Stephens said at his one-man office at 10 N. San Pedro Road across from the Marin Civic Center, where a computer replaces Tallen’s old typewriter.
His desk is graced by a family photograph that includes his wife, Melissa, a Kentfield fifth-grade teacher he knew in high school back in Tempe, Ariz. She looked him up on Facebook and invited him to visit Marin when he was on leave in 2009.
“I’m very blessed,” he said, noting his marriage four months after he returned from duty, and his son, James Johnny, whose birth last year rounded out a family that includes step-son Garrett, 14, and stepdaughter Geary, 12.
Life’s blessings include his job in Marin, where he does what he loves most: helping others help themselves. “Every day I meet somebody who could be me,” he said of veterans who need a helping hand. “I find out how lucky I am.”
Stephens estimated there are 22,000 veterans living in Marin, 5,000 more than have signed up with the Veterans Administration, and some have no idea they are eligible for health, pension and related benefits. “It’s such a tangled web,” he said of the complicated array of military benefits, circumstances and eligibility rules. “There are so many situations. My goal is to find out what their story is, and direct them through the process.”
To do that, he has allied with social services, civic, charitable and law enforcement agencies to track down those who need help. In Sausalito, for example, he joined a city task force on anchor-outs — the community of fiercely independent boat dwellers who live without permits on the bay — and, after visiting 20 boats, found two veterans who were astonished to discover they qualified for benefits.
Sausalito police Chief Jennifer Tejada said Stephens is an exceptional individual totally committed to his mission. “He has a lot of passion and a lot of heart around veterans’ issues,” she said. “He is wonderful to work with.”
Stephens’ quest to help veterans includes frequent stops at county jail as well as San Quentin State Prison, where he has talked to about 60 of the nearly 400 prison inmates who are military veterans, including a number honored for valor in battle. “We talk about what they need, and sign them up so they are members of the system and eligible for benefits when they get released,” he said. Although benefits are curtailed for inmates, they are fully restored upon release from prison.
Stephens recently arranged for a Veterans Administration doctor to visit a Vietnam veteran at San Quentin, enabling him to qualify for a 70 percent disability pension when he gets out in light of post traumatic stress disorder. On another occasion, he brought in an honor guard to salute a World War II veteran. “It lets them know they are not forgotten,” he said.
In June, the Vietnam Veterans Group San Quentin honored Stephens for his work with inmates.
“He has helped all the guys in here,” said group leader Ron Self, a 47-year-old ex-Marine who served in the Gulf War, Rwanda and Somalia. Self, serving the 17th year of a 25-year sentence for “wounding a civilian,” had high praise for Stephens’ “humanity, compassion and attention to detail” while helping prisoners process benefit paperwork.
“He’s a good dude whose work is extraordinary,” agreed Lt. Samuel Robinson, prison information officer.
“A highlight of my job is helping veterans find out about services they didn’t know existed,” Stephens said. “For example, many veterans and their families are unaware of the college scholarship programs for children of veterans. I had an inmate who was so grateful for the ability to help his daughter with college he literally broke down in tears.
“And if you aren’t eligible, there are many other organizations that can help, no matter what kind of discharge you have or what your situation is,” he added.
Stephens also works with Marin’s homeless veterans, and last month provided an honor guard for the funeral of a homeless woman who served in the Air Force.
“Veterans trust veterans, and Sean, with four tours in Afghanistan under his belt, now sees his mission as connecting veterans who come to his attention with the services they need and earned through their service,” noted Susannah Clark, aide to Supervisor Susan Adams. “He is the kind of person any one of us would want in our corner when we need a little help or guidance,” she added, calling him “a big bear with a huge heart,” a gentleman who “gives you the feeling he would do anything for you.”
Stephens was born in Tempe, the son of a police officer, attended Scottsdale and Mesa community colleges, and for six years worked as a Maricopa County welfare eligibility worker, a “great job that involved helping people in their time of need.” After learning during a chance encounter with a National Guard recruiter in 2005 that older recruits were welcome, he signed up and completed basic training at Fort Benning, Ga. He was 37 years old.
Three months later, he was en route to the desert near Kandahar, Afghanistan, where he served on a security force that guarded convoys and spread goodwill in remote villages. When he broke his leg after jumping from a truck with a 110-pound backpack, his crew was sidelined for several weeks. “The truck that took our place was blown up a week later,” he said. “The gunner lost his leg. The driver died.”
After serving with the Arizona National Guard 82nd Airborne unit, he signed up for another tour, joining the 101st Airborne in the mountains near Bagram, working on a base security force. A third tour found him with the 25th Airborne at Combat Post Herrera in Paktia Province, several miles from the Pakistan border, where he trained Afghan officers. It was his favorite job. “I was teaching, working with, educating, helping people” while gathering intelligence, he said. His final tour was cut short when the rigors of military life, including heavy backpacks and relentless, jolting rides on rocky, pitted dirt roads, spurred degenerative disc disease.
Through it all there were a number of close calls involving enemy combatants, but he was among the lucky ones, unharmed when a roadside bomb exploded near his truck. The biggest problem: “The enemy doesn’t wear a uniform, so it could be anybody.”
His life back in Arizona was upended when his first wife filed for divorce, a situation he said turned out to be “the best thing that ever happened to me” because it opened the door for marriage in Marin. “Melissa invited me to Marin,” he said. “The rest is history.”
Soon after arriving, Stephens stopped at the county Civic Center to sign up as a volunteer in the welfare office. But Joan Brown, then head of the county volunteers program, told him the one-man veterans’ office needed help instead. Stephens preferred to work in a bigger department, but Brown persisted, noting that veterans officer Tallen was nearing retirement and needed a replacement.
“She told me, ‘Don’t be an idiot,’” the county veterans service officer recalled. “Joan Brown is the reason I’m here,” he added, smiling brightly as he gestured at his office. “How lucky can one guy get?”
Contact Nels Johnson via email at email@example.com