Face to Face 03.29.18

Mentors for the program must be Monterey County residents and current or former members of the military. “You have to be connected to the military, because the model is: It takes a veteran to help a veteran,” William Nannie says.

William Nannie was still a boy, really, when in 1969 an Army recruiter showed up at Seaside High School and handed out draft lottery numbers. Nannie’s was 31. Instead of heading to Monterey Peninsula College in the fall as he had planned, he left for training and then for Okinawa, Japan, where Nannie spent 18 months repairing printing presses churning out propaganda materials. Nannie never saw combat, but was traumatized by a combination of abuse by fellow soldiers, relentless protesters outside of the Japanese base and 12-hour work days. He turned to drugs and alcohol to dull the pain.

He came home to Seaside where he was reunited with his then-wife and young son, who was born just before he left for Japan. Nannie held down a job as a car mechanic – he still doesn’t know how he pulled it off – but his family life fell apart. In 1987, Nannie reached out for help, went through rehab at Beacon House in Pacific Grove, and then, for the first time, started showing up to his son’s sporting events at Seaside High. In 2001, Nannie picked up where he left off in 1969 – he enrolled at MPC. In 2010, he enrolled at CSU Monterey Bay, and earned a degree in collaborative health and human services in 2015.

Just as fate handed him the number 31 in 1969, it handed Nannie a completely different opportunity in 2015. The founder of Monterey County’s Veterans Treatment Court, Judge Sam Lavorato Jr., asked Nannie, who’s now 66, to create the first peer mentor program for the new court. The VTC diverts some veterans from criminal court and instead puts them through an 18-month supportive program, offering drug and alcohol treatment, counseling and assistance in finding housing and jobs.

Nannie’s mission is now complete – he’s retiring after his last court appearance on April 4 and plans on mornings enjoying coffee and walks on the beach, but not before he helps recruit more volunteer veterans at a special event on April 7.

Weekly: How did you get tapped to launch the peer mentor program?

Nannie: The week of graduation – because I did my capstone project on creating a Veterans Treatment Court – Judge Lavorato wanted to see me in his chambers. He had read my final report, and he kind of looked at me because I wasn’t the typical student. He asked me what I wanted to do after graduating, and I told him, “Anything I can do to use my background and education to help veterans.” He smiled and said, “Perfect answer.” The Monday after graduation, I started the process of creating a peer mentoring program.

The VTC and the mentor program were new territory for both Monterey County Superior Court and you. How did you create a program from scratch?

I’m sitting in the Monterey County Military and Veterans Affairs Office twiddling my thumbs and thinking, where do I start? I did some research and the original court that first started was out in New York. They had a peer mentor leader, so I got his number. He was elated that I was calling and saying I didn’t know where to begin. He said, “Don’t worry about that.”

What’s been most satisfying about creating and leading the mentor program?

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People always ask me, “Are you getting paid for this?” I don’t get paid in the traditional sense. My payday is when we had our first “completion,” as I call it; the court calls it graduation. We’ve had 15 graduations. That’s how I get paid, when I see a 180-degree transition – they’re not hanging their head like they were their first day in court.

Why is it so hard for veterans coming back into civilian life?

You have to understand these men and women, they weren’t drafted like I was. They volunteered, they stepped up to go overseas to serve our country to protect your rights.

We all came back with invisible wounds of war. When I came back, people looked at me and said you walk, you talk. You don’t understand the trauma that I experienced. To me it was 18 months of hell, and our parade was demonstrators waiting for us.

But here’s the amazing part about Vietnam veterans: They are the first ones to step up and help the veterans of today.

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