Disabled military veteran tries a career he had never considered before
When Feliciano Hernandez joined the Army in 2003, he planned to be a ‘lifer’. He liked the structure of military life, the spirit of teamwork and the financial security the Army provided, especially after he and his wife, Nichole, married and their family grew to include four children.
There were downsides to Army life, too. Constant deployments allowed their family only about four months together during the first four years of marriage. “We were separate more than together,” says Feliciano. “And Nichole had to be both mom and dad.”
Four deployments took him deep into Iraq and Afghanistan on combat missions where the potential for injury was a daily threat. As a well-trained combatant, Feliciano had to be fully present and acutely aware of his surroundings. “We worked with nothing but explosives and did a lot of looking for IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) to clear,” he says. “Everything we dealt with was combat related.”
Feliciano’s first IED injury in 2005 resulted in damage to his spine that years later required surgery. After another IED-related injury in 2012, he was awarded the Purple Heart and encouraged by the military to take early retirement. For a long time, Feliciano refused to consider separation from the military life and commitment he had made.
“I wanted to stay in because this (Army) was what I was going to do for the rest of my life; this was who I was. It was not something I could walk away from; and as long as I was able to be productive, I wanted to stay in.”
The day finally came when Feliciano had to admit he would never be able to fully regain previous levels of job function and effectiveness. He was given a retirement package that would provide well enough for his family. But he was not thinking in those terms.
He didn’t like the image or the message that early retirement would give his children, Austin now (12), Jeramiah (10), Feliciano Jr. (8) and Victoria (6). “I didn’t want my kids to see me sit around and get a paycheck,” says Feliciano. “I wanted them to see me get up in the morning and go to school, and then go to work.”
He needed a plan that would help him make that impression on their work ethic.
Feliciano tried college before, but not very successfully. He focused on Electronic Engineering for about a year, then spent a month pursuing a degree in education to become a teacher. Neither fit. His interest in cars fizzled. “I’d tried everything I thought I’d like,” says Feliciano. “A friend who had always encouraged me to go to school now told me, ‘Maybe school’s not for you’.” Was his friend right?
He was doing some thinking out loud one day at a friend’s house, when someone mentioned they knew a woman who went from being a struggling single mom to a Respiratory Therapist who was doing well in her new career. That idea found a home in Feliciano’s mindset. Just a week later he was enrolled in San Joaquin Valley College’s Respiratory Therapy program on the Visalia campus.
His tour of the campus and Respiratory Therapy program was a little intimidating. But he braved the entrance exam and passed. “I had never had anything medical,” says Feliciano. “But it turned out, this was what I wanted to do.” He just had a feeling about this.
Turns out that feeling might should have been fear. “That first term was really hard for me,” he says. “All these terms (medical) I’d never even heard of; it was a whole new vocabulary.”
Most of his fellow students were already working in a hospital or had previous experience in a medical setting. And, at 31-years old, Feliciano was older than many other classmates. “Everyone is 10-years younger than me, and I’m not understanding everything they are. I was thinking I’ll probably fail a term or two.”
But that’s not what happened.
Not unlike the military teamwork Feliciano had trusted and depended on, SJVC’s faculty, program directors, student support liaisons and fellow students were there to fill in any gaps in his education experience and understanding.
“This was different from when I tried school before. When I’d feel out of place, I’d leave,” says Feliciano. “People here wanted me to understand the concepts, not just pass the class. Every time I had trouble; they’d sit down with me. They made it hard not to learn.”
Two faculty members stayed very involved in Feliciano’s education and program success. “Bryon Martino and Kathy Ruiz would remind me that we (students) are the same people they would be working with in the future, so they wanted to make sure we were skilled. That made perfect sense to me.”
Feliciano found his rightful place in the classroom and in his renewed self-confidence. “I wanted to get back to that place where I’m a subject-matter expert, where I’m good at my job,” he says. “I want to be that guy who is a resource when someone hits a wall.”
Feliciano’s own walls began to disintegrate through his increasing knowledge and practical experience.
He credits Nichole for making it all come together for their family. While Feliciano was going to classes during the day, Nichole was going to SJVC’s Pharmacy Technology program during weekday evenings. “If it wasn’t for her support, I don’t think I could have passed the course, even with all the help I was getting from the school.” They worked as a team for the future of their family.
“Feliciano did not need to return to school but had a desire to be that example and keep giving back to the community,” says Kathy Ruiz, Respiratory Therapy Program Director. “After graduation, he achieved his Registered Respiratory Therapy credential and his Respiratory Care Practitioner license and accepted a position, which he calls his ‘dream job’.”
The relationship Feliciano shares with his new colleagues and past faculty at SJVC is strangely familiar. Like the military, the medical community shares a strong sense of camaraderie. “Respiratory Therapists have a common goal of patient care, learning new equipment, and getting the latest information from traveling from hospital to hospital,” he says. “We all have a passion for it and that really drives me.”
As a Respiratory Care Practitioner for Kaweah Delta District Hospital, Feliciano is exactly where he wants to be. “It all didn’t seem real until I got this job,” he says. “And, when I went to work, I realized I understood the language. It was crazy!”
Feliciano’s taste of success has only increased his appetite for more. He is currently enrolled in SJVC’s Online Respiratory Therapy Bachelor’s degree program. “Working with kids, there’s a lot less room for errors,” he says. “That makes it more challenging. If it’s something I can do, I want to do it. I notice that people who work with kids are really happy.”
Feliciano has finally found the career that allows him to express his true nature of giving to others. And, he speaks the language perfectly.