|New veteran officer a retired senior Navy Chief|
|The Press - Features|
|Written by Kelley Lannigan|
|Wednesday, 28 September 2011 18:04|
Tony Esterling of Glen St. Mary has taken over as director of Baker County’s Office of Veterans Affairs, succeeding Herbert Hicks, who retired earlier this year.
“Mr. Hicks encouraged me to apply for the position,” said Mr. Esterling, speaking September 26 from his office in the Ag Center. “I heard that there were quite a few applicants so I’m fortunate and honored to be chosen.”
Mr. Esterling, a senior chief in the Navy, served from 1980 until his retirement in 2008. He and his wife Sandra have two children, Aura and Antonio, Jr., both students in Baker County schools.
Prior to becoming the county’s VA director, Mr. Esterling served as a specialist with WorkSource in Jacksonville dealing specifically with military veterans.He recently completed the first level of a certification program sponsored by the US Department of Veterans Affairs to prepare him to serve the needs of the county’s retired service men and women.
He says the training will be ongoing to keep him abreast of changing legislation that impacts veterans services and benefits.His primary function will be helping vets navigate the sometimes overwhelming application process they must go through for medical care, home loans and other services.
“It begins with helping them get all their military discharge information in place,” he said. “Without that, nothing can go forward.”
One of his goals, he says, is to have a face-to-face meeting with every veteran in the county.
“It’s been my experience that many veterans, especially those who served in Vietnam, aren’t aware of services they are eligible for. I’ll be working to change that.”
He says word of mouth is already bringing in clients with more and more arriving each day.
He’ll also be working to make the office and its services more visible in the community.
“I currently know of veterans who go to Jacksonville and Lake City for the same services that can be provided here in Baker County. I want to encourage them to come here instead,” he said.
Getting the office more automated should help. The certification Mr. Esterling is undergoing will qualify him to access the Department of Veterans Affairs’ database. Being able to help veterans set up their applications and access necessary information online will speed up the process.
Mr. Esterling and his wife relocated to the Jacksonville area from New York when his retirement was approaching. He had always wanted to live in a country setting and the rural nature of the Baker County fit his dream.
The family soon met and became good friends with the late Kim Brannan, then principal of Westside Elementary. He says she had a profound effect on their lives.
“She immediately embraced us when we arrived here,” he said. “Through that relationship we met other people which soon cemented our relationship to the community.”
A native of the Dominican Republic, Jaime Antonio Esterling arrived in Brooklyn, New York at age 10, not speaking, as he puts it, “a lick of English.”
His mother was passionate about her son’s education and worked with him late into the night to master his school lessons.
“I remember burning the midnight oil with my mother and a Spanish-English dictionary,” he said.
His high school social studies teacher, Mr. Matucci, would be the catalyst that steered him into the Navy. One day while the class was studying the Island nation of Formosa, the young Tony expressed out loud an interest in seeing the island, today known a Taiwan.
As it turned out Mr. Matucci was a Navy veteran with 11 years of service under his belt. He knew a way for his student to see Formosa.
“You want to see Formosa, do you?” Mr. Matucci asked him point blank. “Yes? Then join the Navy. You’ll see Formosa and many other places as well.”
And that’s exactly what happened.
After basic training in Illinois, Mr. Esterling quickly found himself in Japan. For the young recruit, it was an eye-opening experience that opened up the world to him.
He finished his tour, then came back to the states working as a truck driver to the tune of 80 hours a week. It wasn’t long before he realized how much he missed the Navy, the traveling, the new experiences and people.
Back in he went and there he stayed, completing numerous tours, serving on frigates, carriers, oilers and finally going into recruiting.
He remembers the counselors at the base being excited when he expressed interest in becoming a recruiter. “Nobody wanted to become a recruiter,” he explained. “It was actually something people joked about, so the counselors were excited that someone was actually interested.”
But Mr. Esterling sincerely desired to help guide young men into naval service.
“You actually get to see how it benefits many people, the discipline and responsibility they learn that they can apply to other areas of their lives,” he said. “And then when someone comes back and says, ‘hey thanks, going into the Navy saved my life’ — well, that’s a huge reward.”
He went from recruiter, to regional recruiter, finally becoming a recruiting instructor in Pensacola, Florida in the late 1990s. Along the way he met and married Sandra and the two began their family. The family then went to New York for while and finally found their way to Jacksonville and Baker County.
Mr. Esterling will be the first to tell you how much he loves Baker County.
“I love it here. You’d have to use a crowbar to pry me away at this point,” he said.
Mr. Esterling also loves this country and has a passion for American history. And he treasures his citizenship, which he formally received while in New York in 2003.
“This is the greatest country in the world,” he said. “It’s an honor and a privilege to be a part of it. I get dividends back from my military service every day of my life. It’s an honor and a privilege to now serve my country’s veterans as well.”
|Last Updated on Thursday, 29 September 2011 11:58|