Veterans’ Stories


FROM refugee to graduate

Etienne John

I served in the US Army for seven years (2005-2012) including Operation Iraqi Freedom. I was born in Burundi, but my family had to escape during the Civil War to a refugee camp in Tanzania. We were in the camp for four years until the US Refugee Program helped relocate my mother and eight siblings to Denver, Colorado in September 2001. September 11…I was 15 years old and was powerfully affected by the horrible event. I joined the Army as soon as I could and became a U.S. citizen

My early life and subsequent duty in the Army left me with difficult PTSD. With a lot of sincere help, and Five STAR Veterans Center, I am doing great! “I was recently asked what advice I would give to any other 9/11 veterans, I responded that it doesn’t matter what life is today, there is always light at the end of the tunnel — as long as we don’t quit.”

“The reason I returned to school after I arrived at Five STAR was because Col. Loving thought an MBA would provide an important step in my transition toward independence from Five STAR. Col. Loving’s insight was instrumental in my decision and for that, I will be forever thankful.”


my story

Mason Dwyer

Following three generations of military warriors, Mason Dwyer selected the U.S. Marines and joined straight out of high school. After boot camp, the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms Marine Base in California became home. Mason prepared for war every day.

Mason took part in combat training, building and testing weapon systems and loading them onto the planes headed for the battlefields. The mental stress of living in a state of war games, combat readiness, and “blowing things up” had a definite and detrimental impact on his mental health.

Upon completing his service, Sgt. Dwyer faced a difficult time. Being a civilian increased his hyper-vigilance. As Mason’s mental health frayed further, his relationships with family and friends broke apart as he began drinking to ease his pain. Soon he found himself homeless.

Five STAR Veterans Center “Gave Me My Life Back”

Five STAR Veterans Center provided Mason the programs and services he needed. Mason became goal-oriented again, reconnected with his family and friends and started his catering and moving businesses.

One of Mason’s new life goals is “To have the means to come back and write a check. Whatever the amount is, it won't be enough. Five STAR Veterans Center is doing what they say they will, and their success rates are high.”


my success story

Paul Zenkowich (and Shadow)

Paul, a Hospital Facilities Specialist, was in the Navy for 10-years when a disability led to his discharge in 2013. The discharge left Paul bereft, and depression and alcohol abuse followed. A divorce pushed Paul further into depression and a lack of self-esteem. Visiting a local pawn shop to get some cash for the coming week, Paul noticed two statues in military gear. He walked in to learn what Five STAR Veterans Center was all about.

At Five STAR, Paul found a more than a safe refuge. He found a family, a counselor, and, ultimately his salvation. Through a special Five STAR Center partnership program, Paul was able to work part time.

He learned how to develop a financial plan, built up his savings and improved his credit rating. Paul is now living alcohol-free, is focused on his future and has returned to family and friends.

“Without the help of Five STAR, I would not be where I am today,” Paul commented. “I’m loving life, ready and excited to be living as a civilian.”


From the Depths to top

Steve Staples

I wanted to do something original in my family…a different service from my military family which left the Navy and Coast Guard as options.  I chose the Navy and Submarine Service to set me apart, I was a radioman for 14 years on Submarines and ended up being on an aircraft carrier. Talk about a change.

Submarines was the hardest job I’d ever done but was the most rewarding. I miss Submarines and would go back tomorrow if they’d have me.  But when I retired and life circumstances changed, I found the transition to civilian life difficult. 

After a while, through continuing changing circumstances, Five STAR was the only place that could help me at that point. Five STAR’s counseling program has helped me with this transition and in addition Five STAR has allowed me to go to trade school to enable me to transition to the job market not related to my military skill sets. 

I’m immensely grateful to Five STAR staff, donors, and everyone who makes it work. I could not have done this any other way. And now I look forward to bigger and better things my way due to the help I have received. Thank you.


success story

Charles Lamar

I served in the US Marines for four years and was deployed to Iraq twice.  I was in security for one of the Ammo Dumps and escorted and provided security for ammo transports.  My other duties were to check the explosion areas and bag & tag all body parts for future identification.  Needless to say, the fighting, the stress of transporting vehicles under fire, and the horror of looking for body parts got to me.  I was extended for several months, promoted to Sergeant but only if I would accept a transfer to Afghanistan. I considered staying in but decided to go home. 

Once home, my life was a mess.  My wife left me for someone else, my PTSD meant I was unable to sleep, tried to commit suicide twice and was a mess. After trying to OD, I was in a VA hospital in Illinois and a counselor helped me find Five STAR online and I came here to live.

This place is a life saver.  It is wonderful to have my own place, be able to relax and I am beginning to enjoy my life again. All I can say is thank you and I will not waste this blessing, I plan to finish my degree and take this opportunity to change my life.

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a Hopeful Place

James Knuckles

Five STAR is a blessing for me!  Due to unforeseen life events, I found myself without shelter and very limited financial resources, yet was rejected by most other non-profit organizations, including the VA.  Since accepted by Five STAR, I’ve been participating in programs to facilitate independence.  This would be impossible given the ultimate fate of homelessness.  Thank you Five STAR!

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Pain to Joy

Cedric Gaither

USS Saratoga Nov 1981 - Mar 1986

I spent 5 ½ years aboard the Saratoga, CV 60, homeported in Mayport, Florida.  At first it was a rough ride…but through pampering and molding me proved to turn out a very successful start of my career.  After I got out, I had numerous good job opportunities.  To this day, I have still found myself following the path of what I was taught aboard the carrier.  Now I’m on board the 5STAR Veterans Center which has proven to be a very successful place if you apply yourself to the rules and decrees of the Center.  Sometimes it is unfortunate that you have to do things that are out of character, but you pick up brush off and keep it moving.  I’m so happy that I am a part of a good organization like 5STAR.  I want to encourage others to take advantage of the opportunities that are available at 5STAR to do what it takes to help themselves.


Now Success Is Visible

John J. Harris, III

I served in the Army for eight years as a diesel mechanic.  I used a vocational rehabilitation program to get a degree in social work but couldn’t make enough money to support my daughter and myself.  Went back to work for the Army as a contractor and found myself in Iraq for three more years.  Worked on heavy equipment and refurbished battle damaged equipment at FOB (B2) Camp, Al  Taqaddum Airfield in northern Iraq.  We saw a lot of the results of battle and the soldiers who fought.  That made it very hard.  Eventually I came back home but things didn’t work out for me.  Financial difficulties increased over time.  Lived in hotels and my car.  Found out about Five STAR through the Community Resources.  Came to 5STAR and was told to join for dinner and talked to some of the Residents.  Was told to return the next day to apply and was accepted into the program.  I am working on gaining financial control, got a job at Blount Island working on Marine Corps trucks, and was able to help my daughter go to college.  5STAR also helped me recover after back surgery.  I don’t know where I would be today without the help of 5STAR. 



Leonard McRae

US Army

Aug 1986 – Mar 1993

I SERVED AS A Material Storage and Handling Specialist, serving tours stateside as well as two overseas tours of South Korea and Stuttgart, Germany.  5STAR is helping me to reestablish goals in my life and get back on my feet through Passport to Independence.