Marine supports comrades, promotes veteran population


Cody Casares / The Advocate

Leon Watkins wraps himself in the American flag in front of the Student and Administration Building on Monday. Watkins has worked in the Veterans Corner for the past seven months assisting veterans with their educational benefits and needs.

By Cody Casares, Photo Editor

To walk past him without noticing him is nearly impossible, although he does like to wear camouflage.

For the past seven months Contra Costa College student Leon Watkins has served as the veterans-student liaison, bridging the divide between faculty and veterans here.

“The leadership from the Marine Corps has been implanted in me, and being able to be recognized by Mrs. (Catherine) Frost (director of Admissions and Records), who is the one who offered me the position, is how I truly try to stand tall on this. Being able to represent veterans, to me, is a great honor,” Watkins said.

He said when veterans come into the Veterans Corner office the goal is to assess what their needs are. Most of the time it’s an educational need initially, but he does not stop there.

“What’s happened in the last seven months is, instead of veterans going all over the place, we have it down to three places that a veteran goes after coming to campus. For the most part it starts in the veterans office, explaining the procedure of what it is for a new student to become enrolled, or as an existing student what paperwork is missing or is needed to receive their educational benefits,” Watkins said.

After that is done, Watkins said he assesses if the veteran has a service connected disability rating with a pension and compensation, assists in enrolling veterans in Veterans Affair health care programs and then again assesses if any housing programs apply.

CCC counselor Andrea Phillips said,  “This is something that the college hasn’t had for a few years, and with his presence it’s making us, faculty and administrators and classified (staff), be a little more responsible for our veterans on campus.”

Watkins was born in San Pablo and remained in the area, attending and graduating from John F. Kennedy High School before joining the Marine Corps.

“I had always heard of Contra Costa (College) and so it’s kind of full circle. I was born in San Pablo and basically have traveled the globe and now I came back to receive higher education,” Watkins said.

Watkins said he intends to transfer to a state school or university after completing the required transfer courses.

“Leon is awesome, I think, because he is so pro-veterans. That and he understands the transition from being in the service to civilian life,” Phillips said.

“I think he is a champion for veterans,” Phillips said. “He has prepared folders for when veterans come in and he gives them all the steps and works with Trinidad Ledesma and then brings me into the fold to do the education planning,” she said. “Having that relationship with faculty and staff members here and being that liaison with students has been awesome.”

Watkins, a veteran himself, served as a combat photographer, photographing then President Ronald Reagan, the Secretary of the Navy John Lehman and the first black general in the Marine Corps Frank Paterson. He took on photo assignments for the Marines all over the world.

“The Marine Corps is so embedded in me at this point that I still sleep with a poncho liner. I’m wacky for camouflage,” he said. “I still have two of them from 1984 that I put away.”

Watkins’ passion for helping veterans extends off campus with his non-profit organization, The Walking Ghost of Black History.

Watkins was cast in the movie “Glory” as the flag bearer with the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, he said.

At the completion of shooting the film, the producer, Freddie Fields, gifted 20 uniforms used in the movie to Watkins to start his organization, he said.

Commander Dedan Ji Jaga, of the Richmond Veterans Memorial Hall said, “His organization struck me as interesting, and we started to work together. Early on I could see that Leon was an exceptionally dedicated individual in terms of veterans and their rights entitlements and benefits and that he was a lot more active than most had assumed for some reason.

“It’s difficult to see how someone of that proportion could be taken lightly, and the fact that he has a very significant association with past African-American military, to me indicates that he has an agenda to advance all the opportunities for veterans on campus. We step behind (him) to give him support that he needs and let the campus know that he has a support system in the community, as well as here on campus,” he said.

Watkins is second-generation military, with his father having served in the Air Force and was stationed at Travis Air Force base in Fairfield.

“I’m grateful for the Marine Corps because of the camaraderie, the team effort and the saying ‘no man gets left behind’,” Watkins said.