By Catherine Kolonko
It didn’t take much to convince a U.S. Army colonel to join forces with a local nonprofit to help military veterans in need. After 11 months of retirement and lots of playing tennis and teaching it to youngsters, Col. Bernard “Kimo” Gabriel was good to go.
Gabriel, 59, has been named the new director of veteran services for Interfaith Community Services (ICS), which helps disadvantaged and underserved North County residents. He spoke to members and supporters on July 26 during a reception in his honor at the home of Richard and Jinda Schatz.
“We are lucky to get him,” said ICS executive director Richard Batt, introducing Gabriel to the group.
Finding solutions for fellow veterans is a cause dear to Gabriel who served the military for 37 years, including a stint as Director of Operations for the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii. A one-time paratrooper who joked of his experiences jumping from planes, Gabriel came up through military ranks and made colonel in 1981.
“I was at the Pentagon when the airplane hit” during the terror attack of 9/11, Gabriel said. “Not too many people know that.” The retired colonel said that 32 of his friends were killed that day.
About a decade later, Gabriel was settling into retirement in Arizona, volunteering at the local Veterans Affairs hospital and “playing too much tennis,” he said. After a visit to the hospital he talked to his wife about his desire to do something more to help his “brothers and sisters” — veterans struggling with everyday life.
“We said, OK let’s do it,” Gabriel said about pursuing the job with Interfaith.
Batt said that Gabriel was chosen from a pool of exceptional candidates for a previously vacated post that has expanded to include strategic program development. One advantage that Gabriel brings to the job is that he served the military both as a soldier and an officer because many veterans who seek ICS assistance served as enlisted personnel.
“He had an extraordinary military career that is really characterized by leadership,” said Batt.
Gabriel said he wants to build the veteran programs offered through ICS into a model that can be duplicated nationwide. A key component will be an emphasis on military veterans helping other veterans with issues spawned from shared experiences, such as depression, alcoholism, joblessness, and homelessness. His plans also include forging bonds with corporations that could benefit from the experience and discipline of military veterans and, in turn, potentially provide jobs or training for them.
“This idea of maximizing the talent and skills of our veterans … is also very important because our mission is to get them off of the street,” Gabriel said.
Two women veterans attended the reception and spoke about how they were either homeless or on the verge of having no place to live when they sought the services of Interfaith. Kristine Wise, 42, said she battled with depression after serving a stint in Iraq. While staying at a shelter for women veterans she met Jana Ketchum, 56, who experienced similar difficulties. The two women successfully completed programs, became best friends and are no longer homeless.
Gabriel views his new position as a way to help veterans like Wise and Ketchum and show his appreciation for his military service.
“It’s about giving back to the military for what they have done for me and my family,” Gabriel said in a telephone interview. “I can’t thank the military enough for what they have done for my family.”
Gabriel and his wife Debbie have four grandchildren and three grown sons, two who serve in the military and one who is a teacher. The Vietnam War was winding down in 1972 when Gabriel was drafted into service and sent to Germany. He enjoyed the Army so much that he re-enlisted. At the end of his required service, he left to attend college and then returned as a commissioned officer second lieutenant. His career included work in foreign affairs and two stints in Washington D.C. He holds master degrees from Cornell University and the U.S. National Defense University.
Gabriel plans to rev up outreach to spread the word about veteran services offered at Interfaith and build connections with educational and business leaders. This week he meets with representatives from Palomar College and Veterans Affairs, he said.
At the end of the day, the reward is to see veterans brought back from being homeless to being self-sufficient, Gabriel said.
“Hopefully we will give them all the confidence they need,” he said.
For more information, visit www.interfaithservices.org.