Post-military, taking on a dual role with local vets

John Wiley (right), who served in the Navy in 1970-75, talks with Veterans Group staffer Chris Jimenez, who was in the Army in 2001-05.

When he retired from a career in the military in 2012, Jose Martinez was at a loss as to what to do next.

He was divorced, raising children, and adjusting to life out of the uniform. His skills in telecommunications had grown stale, and he had to go back to school.

Today, just four years later, Martinez, 43, wears two hats: one, as executive director of the Veterans Group, a house for homeless vets on Baring Street in University City; the second, as leader of the Mission Continues, a national nonprofit started in St. Louis that recruits veterans and active-duty service personnel for community projects.

Martinez's first postretirement job came about through volunteering.

"I started off as a volunteer two years ago at the Veterans Group to help vets get their paperwork together for V.A. claims.

"I always tell people, 'Volunteer, because you never know what might happen,' " he said with a quick laugh.

The Veterans Group is opening a house nearby, on Baltimore Avenue, for female veterans, Martinez said.

"There's a huge need, especially for the Vietnam-era vets, many of whom never received benefits," he said, noting that Pennsylvania has the nation's largest population of veterans over age 55.

At the Mission Continues, local "platoons" such as the one Martinez leads "deploy" veterans on missions in the community.

"We do it so that our actions will inspire future generations to serve," he said.

In Washington, for example, a platoon worked to reduce hunger among inner-city youth.

In Detroit in June, the Philly First Platoon joined other platoons from around the country to help clean up schools and parks.

It's also a way for vets to socialize.

"We meet once a month for service projects, or sometimes to go to football or Sixers games," he said.

The Philly First Platoon is game to join forces on projects, Martinez said: "We're looking for ways that our platoon can partner with others in the city."

Its next service mission will be renovating a school building into affordable veterans housing.

 Martinez was born across the river in Camden and remembers that Philly "was my backyard. The easiest way to get there was walking over the Ben Franklin Bridge."

He graduated from Camden County Technical School in Pennsauken and joined the National Guard in 1989, then the Army Reserve. After Sept. 11, 2001, Martinez returned to active duty, deploying to Egypt in 2004.

Between 2006 and 2012, he worked as an instructor for the National Guard and trained other soldiers until his retirement in 2012.

"Like a lot of vets, I didn't have a plan after my separation. I thought I'd go back to work in my old field, as a project manager in telecom, building cellphone towers. But that industry had changed so much, I barely recognized it. I had to start from ground zero and go back to school," which he did, enrolling at Drexel.

With about 600 veterans at the university, Martinez became vice president of the Drexel Vets Association and found out about the Mission Continues. He volunteered and in November 2014 was asked by the nonprofit to lead a team of veteran volunteers in Philadelphia.

"However, the team had not been active, with many of the members either having lost interest or moved on," he recalled.

Martinez got to work, recruiting 50 volunteers, establishing partnerships with other organizations, and reengaging members, all in under a year. The Philly First Platoon completed more than 900 volunteer hours, finishing 12 community-service projects just in 2015.

The Mission Continues has primarily attracted post-9/11 veterans, but that's changing.

"Most of my members were from the area colleges in Philadelphia, in the 24- to 32-year-old range. I really hope we will see more service members who are pre-9/11 veterans," he said.

How would he advise other retired veterans like himself?

"I would challenge any veteran - retired or otherwise - to utilize the skill sets developed in their service to help benefit the veteran population. Find an outlet like the Mission Continues or a local veteran agency advocating."

earvedlund@phillynews.com

215-854-2808

@erinarvedlund