Owning my Status as a Vet; Giving Back
by Sue Wolinsky
In the larger equation of life during military service, there are many variables. It doesn’t matter in which branch, or where, or when, or what you do, or how long you serve. There is a brotherhood and sisterhood among veterans, a strong bond that only veterans know. The common denominator is having served.
That bond is what motivates Jeff Bleau (former Navy, MM3) to give back to his fellow veterans today. It also takes some of the sting away from the fact that he was medically discharged after only 3-1/2 years in the nuclear Navy. Even so, he made the most out of his Navy training in a successful career in the nuclear power industry. After retiring from that industry in 2017, he finally had time to reflect on his life in the Navy and afterward. That’s when he started looking around where he lives near Alto and in the broader Lincoln County, NM, for other veterans, learning of their needs and the benefits they were receiving. He knew he wanted to work with them to make life better for them and for all veterans in NM. “Once I retired and started to own my status as a veteran, I started thinking there were probably a lot of vets who weren’t in any shooting conflict or weren’t able to serve as long as they wanted to. I wasn’t alone,” he reflected. “I don’t want anybody to feel that I shouldn’t be doing this, helping vets. I will help wherever I can.”
MILITARY LIFE: Jeff enlisted right out of high school in Albany, NY. He turned 18 at boot camp in San Diego. His ASVAB scores were high; high enough to qualify for nuclear Navy training. “My Navy experience was critical for my early life. It meant a lot of change personally for me,” he said.
Jeff went to A-School at the Great Lakes Naval Base near Chicago. First he had machinist mate training. He was then attached to the USS Concord for six to seven months. While on the Concord, they trained for two weeks in Guantanamo Bay. They made stops along the east coast and were headed to Boston in 1975, to help prepare for the country’s Bicentennial celebration in 1976, when bad weather caused them to go back to Norfolk instead. Then he went to nuclear power school. He was in the final nuclear power school class at Bainbridge, MD. “It was a beautiful base. I’ve been back to visit; it was housing a Job Corps Center at the time,” he said.
Then he was headed for six months of prototype training in West Milton NY. “At that time, there were three to four prototypes of nuke-powered vessels. We had a prototype of the ship Bainbridge. We trained in the hull of a partially recreated full-size ship, in several compartments,” he explained. “We had to qualify and train on the operation of the ship systems. When completed, I qualified for emergency welding training in Groton CT. Each ship needs a small handful of emergency welders to weld steel on the ship’s primary systems when needed”.
It was when he was assigned to the USS Grant in SC that he experienced a back injury during training. That led to his early release from the Navy with a 10% medical disability.
“Sometimes I regret having been released so early due to a medical issue,” he reminisced. “I got a 10% disability, but I didn’t apply for any VA benefits then. When I got out, I continued with my life. I am grateful for this training. It gave me the foundation for a good career in the nuclear power industry. And now I want to give back,” he said.
LIFE AFTER THE MILITARY: “I was in my early 20’s when I got out. I put my nuclear Navy training to work. I worked at several nuclear facilities. There were the power plants (Surry Power Station in southeastern VA; the Zion Nuclear Power Station outside of Chicago); and a shipyard job in Galveston TX that jumped from three weeks to three years. I met my wife, Carol, there about 40 years ago. At the start of that career, I was a contract radiological protection technician. I became a supervisor, then a general supervisor. I started working power plant outages, when they shut down for refueling and maintenance,” he recalled. Click here to learn about nuclear power plant outages. He got hired at the South Texas Project Electric Generating Station near Bay City TX to do work coordination. He did radiation protection work initially. Then he took and passed the six-month training for management certification in reactor operations. After that, he went into scheduling and planning reactor shutdown and reassembly (outages).
Jeff retired in 2017. “It was then that I really thought much about my military experience and being a veteran. I heard about veteran discounts at local stores and national chains. When I tried to get the discounts, I found I needed a VA ID card to apply. So I went to the VA to get the documentation I needed. As a result of that meeting at the VA, I applied for and received my 10% medical disability. That was 36 years after I left the Navy! I had a good experience with the VA and I was happy to get store discounts,” he recalled.
That led Jeff to dig deeper into ways to help veterans. “I want to help vets, now that I have the time. I’ve always believed in the Democratic Party principles. I found that was different from a lot of people I worked with and a lot of the people who live in my part of the state. After moving near Alto, NM and eventually buying 20 acres to live on in retirement, I have gotten involved in the local Democratic Party in Lincoln County. There are a little more than 20,000 residents in Lincoln County. It’s a very ‘red’ county. It’s tough to be a Democrat here,” he said.
“A couple years ago, the new county clerk came to our Democratic Party meeting. She gave an enlightening presentation on our voting process. Misinformed individuals had challenged the legitimacy of our votes in Lincoln County. I thought that I needed to see this for myself. So I signed up to work for the county as a poll worker. To anybody who would challenge the election process in Lincoln County, I’d say there’s no reason to challenge. I dug deeper and started to attend county commission meetings. I think I know what’s going on. It’s amazing to me the number of people who cast aspersion on the voting process,” he explained.
“That got me started, but I wasn’t focusing on veterans specifically yet. I met Claudia Risner, chair of the DPNM Veterans and Military Families Caucus, when the caucus visited our county Democratic Party meeting recently. I joined the caucus and I want to engage vets more…. Vet issues need a bigger voice. I’m glad to be part of that voice,” he said proudly.
Jeff has already participated in a recent VMFC meeting to find ways he can fulfill his desire of helping vets in NM.