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Vietnam veteran discovers it's not too late to learn

john hinkel

Vietnam veteran John Hinkel returned to college on the GI Bill

Nov 5, 2018
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Vietnam veteran John Hinkel's return to school began as a way to make up for mistakes in his past and to see what kind of student he could become. But the relationships he has created with other Pacific veteran students have been the real key to his success.

"I think the friendships that I've formed, to me, that's more important than the classes," Hinkel said. "I'm here to learn, but all the side benefits of that are the relationships that I make." Hinkel's first attempt at an education in the late 1960s didn't go well. He got into trouble and was kicked out of high school. He did receive his diploma, but it came with a note.

"'Don't bother coming to graduation. Your diploma's in the mail. Don't come around anymore,'" Hinkel remembered.

He faced trouble with the law as well and went before a judge who gave him a choice: prison or the Marines. Hinkel chose the Marines and eventually went to Vietnam.

By the time he returned to the United States and civilian life, Hinkel knew enough about himself to choose a job that kept him physically busy and outdoors, so he worked as a roofer. He was a member of the roofers' union for 35 years, but as retirement neared, a desire for more education began to grow within him.

"It just hit me," he said. "I just had a strong desire to make up for high school, to make amends for that, and I wanted to find out if I could actually learn."

Relying on funding from the GI Bill, Hinkel enrolled at Modesto Junior College and then transferred to Pacific in 2015, because his counselor told him Pacific is a veteran-friendly school. He majored in health, exercise and sports science so he could become a physical therapist and help other veterans.

One of the biggest challenges he faced was technology. He didn't know how to type and was unfamiliar with computers.

"It was very frustrating for me at first," he said. "I didn't even know how to turn one on."

Hinkel, who is 65, believes younger students sometimes don't know what to make of him when he rides to school on his Harley wearing his motorcycle club colors.

"But once they get to know me, they find out I'm real approachable, and I've made a lot of good friends here," he said.

One place he did fit in, however, was the veterans' center. The veterans he met there served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and though they were younger, their similar experiences helped create a bond.

"It's a safe space for me," Hinkel said. "You can go there and you don't have to worry about the things you say or how you act because they get it."

Hinkel no longer thinks he'll become a physical therapist, but he does want to take what he's learned here and use it in the community service he performs with his motorcycle club for other veterans and foster children. He's not sure how that will look.

"I'm exploring that right now," he said. "Having a purposeful mission, it gives (us) something to do, to keep serving, and keep your mind off a lot of the problems that we have."

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