Coming Home PA is a project spearheaded by PublicSource, a local nonprofit investigative news group, with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and other local media partners.
He maintained and repaired electronic parts for jets, a job requiring technical expertise and backbreaking labor. He felt appreciated, though. The pay was good, he was given a Navy Achievement Medal for his performance and was invited to re-enlist.
Jonathan Quicquaro thought he did everything right.
A 25-year-old Navy veteran with a wife and child, the Latrobe native spent five years on active duty, mostly on aircraft carriers, although he also was deployed to Iraq as an aviation electronics technician.
But the years on a 3 p.m. to 3 a.m. shift took its toll on Jonathan and his young family, so when his commanders said they could not change his schedule if he re-enlisted, he decided to leave and was discharged in September 2011.
Now, back in Western Pennsylvania attending the University of Pittsburgh's Greensburg campus as a full-time student on the GI Bill, Jonathan is settling in, but he worries about money, wonders if he made a mistake and wonders why his military experience counts for so little in civilian life.
"My profession in the military was science-based. I know engineering and electronics. I was the leading tech guy in my unit," Jonathan says.
A stocky, serious-faced man who was known at Greater Latrobe Senior High School for his technical smarts, he nonetheless knows that, without a college degree, he has no hope of leveraging his military skills into any kind of career.
"If I walked into Latrobe Airport to apply for a job, they'd probably just laugh in my face."
So now he's in college struggling to make it on a $1,500 monthly living stipend. His unemployment benefits -- $2,000 a month -- are going to run out this year, and after rent and child care (his wife, Rochelle, also works), there's barely enough to make ends meet.
He did land a coveted work-study job in the Westmoreland County Office of Veterans Affairs for an extra $320 a month. But he is either working or studying 12 hours a day, which is hard on his family.
He never intended his re-entry to be this way.
Always a planner, always a go-getter, he thought the Navy would make a good career. He never saw combat in Iraq, but he was injured after handling heavy equipment and breathing smoke and fumes from aircraft and nearby burn pits involving hazardous materials.
Today, he has constant headaches, chronic back pain and gastrointestinal problems that some have attributed to "Gulf War illness."
Nonetheless, he did everything he could to plan for a smooth transition, including applying for disability within 60 days of being discharged, knowing there would be a backlog once he got out. (He's still waiting.)
Now, he second-guesses his decision to leave.
"I brought a lot of this on myself," he says. "I had a career. I could have re-enlisted. They thought I was very good at what I did. But I had a newborn baby."
Since coming home, he has learned this much: "If you don't steer the ship yourself, no one else is going to do it for you."
First Published April 16, 2012 1:45 PM