Student veteran is a man on a mission
It was early in the Iraq War. Mortars and sandstorms were a daily occurrence for Jhonnatan Chinchilla ‘17.
“We were the support system for the marines going door-to-door,” recalls Chinchilla. “Mortars became an everyday occurrence and you had to adapt to the thought that you might come home, or you might not.”
Chinchilla was 19 when he first deployed. The son of immigrants, his mother impressed upon him the importance of an education. However, without a clear path after high school, he enlisted in the Marines.
“I wanted to be challenged,” laughs Chinchilla. “I told myself if I was going to do it, I was going to do it this way.”
After four deployments overseas, Chinchilla settled in California, first attending community college, and then transferring to the University of San Diego.
Now in his senior year, this accountancy major is in the reserves and will be completing his military commitment in four years. His dedication to the military has only grown during his 16 years of service.
“I knew staying on the block was not the way to go,” says Chinchilla. “I knew there was more to my purpose.”
Growing up in Brooklyn, Chinchilla’s childhood was “difficult.” The son of immigrants, his father was a mechanic and his mother a stay-at-home mom.
Wanting to find guidance and a support structure, Chinchilla enlisted shortly after high school.
“My first deployment was to Kuwait for nine months during the invasion of Iraq. I was 19 and supporting the marines pushing through Iraq,” he recalls. “We had to grow up really fast, that’s for sure.”
In 2004, Chinchilla was redeployed to Fallujah. In the midst of one of the deadliest battles of the Iraq War, he provided much needed supplies assistance.
“I remember one time getting back to base and we got mortared. After a couple of days, mortars are just another thing,” he recalls. “If you hear them, that means you’re still alive.”
Although no longer actively deployed, Chinchilla still wears his uniform with pride.
“What I enjoy is being able to put on the uniform and talk to these new, young marines,” he says. “A lot of people didn’t give me a shot, and so talking with them, I feel like I’m able to empower them. I can serve as an example to them that they can do it.”
Chinchilla doesn’t just advise students; he leads by example. As an active member of the student veteran community, he has served as the President of the Student Veterans Organization and has been a constant presence in the Hero Club and the Military Ally program.
The HERO — an acronym for “Honor, Empower, Remember, Overcome” — was founded to raise awareness for service men and women who have been killed in action. The primary focus is to bring together non-military students and veterans while creating camaraderie through high-intensity workouts.
For Chinchilla, who’s been a guest speaker for the club, this program encourages campus involvement in the student veteran community while creating meaningful relationships among its participants.
“The workouts are high intensity, where they are mentally and physically demanding. It’s meant to challenge you,” Chinchilla admits. “But we’re all pushing each other to get to that finish line.”
In addition to his involvement with the HERO Club, Chinchilla has been a spokesperson for the Military Ally program, a faculty and staff awareness program that was brought to campus through a cooperation between San Diego State University and USD.
For Derek Abbey, USD’s Veteran Student Services Coordinator, programs like Military Ally encourage the military-connected students, who make up around eight percent of the campus population, to come together through their shared experiences.
“The military has its own, distinct culture,” says Abbey. “The Military Ally program shows USD’s commitment to our community as part of the campus mission and vision. We’re building on our diversity and learning from them.”
For Chinchilla, USD is leading by example, embracing the veteran community by having “space” for the student veteran experience.
“It says a lot about the school,” he says. “Embracing the student veteran community and having a space for veterans to come encourages retention and graduation. What that allows us to do is not only represent our service, but also the USD community.”
Chinchilla credits the support he has received through school programs, such as the Military Ally program and the Student Veteran Organization, as being an influential part of his own journey.
“I always say that they saved my life,” he says. “I was having a hard time trying to figure myself out and where I fit in this culture. It wasn’t until I discovered the Student Veteran Organization at school that I realized other veterans are going through the same things.”
Chinchilla, who’ll be staying at USD an additional year to be eligible for the CPA exam, sees it as his job to educate the campus community on the veteran experience and to ensure the support structure he has found is available for future veterans as well.
“We want to make life better for those veterans who are still coming,” he says. “Many people are facing challenges today, and I’m no better than them because I’ve overcome them. But what if I could help someone overcome their own? What if we could overcome them together?”
From the battlefield to the classroom and into his future, Chinchilla’s primary motivation has, and always will be, to represent his community as a proud service member, teaching others through his experience and encouraging them with his understanding. — Allyson Meyer ‘16
This is an expanded version of an article that ran in the Summer 2017 issue of USD Magazine.