At Swords to Plowshares, we don’t just encourage other employers to hire veterans. We’ve hired and worked with plenty of veterans ourselves. In fact, more than 40 percent of our current staff are veterans, many of whom first set foot inside our doorsteps as a client in need.
For Steven Bradley, a California native who recently joined our team as an AmeriCorps VISTA, the journey getting here was long and arduous. At the tender age of five, he lost his whole family and was raised in a series of foster homes until joining the Navy at age 17.
“Because that happened at such a young age, I was destroyed, unfocused, and made numerous misguided choices. You don’t know why you have pain and no one can explain it to you, and all you want is the pain to stop,” Bradley says today.
Having served in the Navy from 1976 to 1980 as a Hospital Corpsman, Bradley’s military service gave him a sense of pride and belonging. Once he got out, however, he lost his way and fell prey to substance abuse—a battle against crack cocaine that lasted more than 20 years and led him to the brink of suicide.
“That was the hardest struggle to overcome—myself. My emotions and the places they take you, choices we make in trying to alleviate pain,” Bradley says. “There had been a lot of attempts and re-attempts to quit, a few years of clean time here and there. The bottom line is not acquiescing to defeat. But getting to that point, it was necessary to face myself over the question of suicide. I had determined a manner and selected a location. I went to the spot to consider…then concluded I wasn’t going to do it, even though life sucked then. I reflected on what I gained from military service as a Corpsman and used examples of the Marines I cared for, and that was to drive on, one foot in front of the other, regardless of the temporary conditions. I had to do something else.”
In Bradley’s case, “something else” meant relocating to Vermont, now his second favorite state in the U.S. Over the years he had worked a string of odd jobs—fishing in Alaska, construction work, dock work as a stevedore—always the wanderer and adventurer. The relocation coupled with his own increasing maturity helped him to focus constructively.
“Mostly, I didn’t know who I was or that I could even create that image for myself. I started many things but wasn’t focused on any one thing. I was living in the immediate as opposed to viewing the continuum of life,” Bradley says. “But when I look back nearly 40 years later, the connection that’s pivotal is me selecting the job as Hospital Corpsman. That now tells me more about who I am. I care for the herd of humanity.”
Today Bradley is on track to earn his B.S. in Human Services from Notre Dame de Namur University later this spring. Meanwhile at Swords to Plowshares, as a Veteran Employment Research & Outreach Associate, Bradley is hard at work researching projects and proposals for our Combat to Community program as well as building relationships with veteran affinity groups in industries such as healthcare.
“Personally I love (Swords to Plowshares). The working style matches my style, plenty of self-direction. There’s assistance and guidance when you need it but not over supervised.”
At 58, Bradley is older than the typical recent college grad who joins AmeriCorps. But it doesn’t deter him—if anything he finds it inspiring to work both for and alongside fellow veterans.
“I like to think I was able to re-establish myself by using the mindset and training methods first instilled during my military service,” Bradley says. “My complaint with the civilian world is there’s not that sense of shared purpose or comradery. With vets we understand the same rules and conditions. Just like in the military, there’s a lot of prep work followed by an event, with all hands on deck ’til the job is done.”
With the aim to one day become a veteran peer specialist, Bradley aspires to perform the same kind of caregiving in social work that he did in the Navy.
“To go through a bunch of stuff in your life and come out on your feet, and work yourself from that undesirable situation to productive citizenship; that’s where I can support other people going through addiction. By being a friend, and being willing to walk with someone as they’re working to find their way back to civilization.”