It’s not about me Under a perfect blue Kansas City sky last fall, Javier Centonzio, ’09, stood proudly, surrounded by his four beloved godchildren — Amaya, Analysia, Jake and Nadia — in front of a packed stadium during a “Salute to Troops” event sponsored by Park University prior to a Major League Soccer match hosted by Sporting Kansas City. For his courage and commitment to his country, Centonzio was celebrated by waves of applause that followed his name read over the stadium public address system. Centonzio managed a smile and waved to the crowd. Yet he brushed off the attention. “It’s not about me. It’s never about me,” he said. “It’s about them — the veterans. The more we focus on them, the more we understand their issues — homelessness, legal issues, family issues — the more we can serve them. That’s the mission.” Overcoming obstacles And what a mission it’s been — a zigzagged line from life as a high school dropout to life in the military, to this proud moment — as a decorated veteran, an accomplished attorney, a successful advocate for veterans’ rights and a proud graduate of Park University, who overcame obstacles to achieve a dream to serve others that was seeded by his mother years ago. Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Centonzio moved to the United States early in life and spent most of his formative years in the Argentine neighborhood of Kansas City, Kan. “It was mostly my mom and me growing up,” he said. “She’s my role model. She was a nurse who worked hard and instilled in me the importance of education and volunteering.” Despite their best efforts, Centonzio and his mom struggled. The American dream receded from their reach, as Centonzio remembers. By 10th grade, he left high school and ultimately entered the Job Corps program, where he learned a couple different trades and ultimately earned a GED diploma. Then came life in the U.S. Marine Corps. “Part of it was my mother’s influence — to focus on service. I wanted to serve my country. As a first generation American, I didn’t want people to say that my family and I did not belong in this country. That was the biggest reason why I joined.” Honoring sacrifice After serving his first enlistment in the Marine Corps, Centonzio returned to Kansas City and began working for Union Pacific Railroad. He missed the camaraderie of serving in the military and joined the Kansas Army National Guard. Soon after joining the Guard, his unit was deployed to Iraq. During training, Centonzio became friends with another former Marine, Sgt. Jessie Davila. Not long before their unit was scheduled to leave for Iraq, Davila was moved to another squad and stationed in a different part of the country than Centonzio. Three months into their tour, the reality of war hit Centonzio hard. An improvised explosive
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Javier Centonzio, ’09, stands with his godchildren — Jake Galvan, Amaya Carrillo, Nadia Galvan and Analysia Carrillo — during a “Salute to Troops” event sponsored by Park University prior to a Major League Soccer match hosted by Sporting Kansas City. Photo by Gary Rohman
device had detonated, killing Davila during a mission in Baghdad.
only one in the Midwest to earn the coveted grant.
“You realize that it could have been any of us — any member of my squad, his squad, any one of the men and women serving in Iraq,” he said. “It was that day — the day Jessie died — that I decided to honor his sacrifice by becoming a lawyer, something that I thought was impossible. Ultimately, I had to achieve this goal to become an attorney because to fail would betray those like Jessie who didn’t get that chance.”
After graduation, Centonzio attended law school on a full scholarship. He graduated in the top third of his class at Stetson University College of Law, and went on to earn a Master of Laws degree in elder law to assist a growing population of aging veterans. Today, in addition to his work as a lawyer, Centonzio volunteers and supports the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, Project Homeless Connect and the Veterans Pro Bono Consortium. He founded the “Heroes Weekend” event honoring veterans in Gulfport, Fla., and he created the Sgt. Jessie Davila Memorial Veterans Scholarship to provide scholarships for veterans pursuing a law degree at Stetson.
After returning from Iraq in 2006, Centonzio followed through on his commitment. First came an undergraduate degree, which he achieved in two years at Park University, graduating summa cum laude and serving one year as president of the Park Student Government Association. While at Park, Centonzio expanded the University’s veterans’ support programs, worked tirelessly for veterans’ rights, spoke often on their behalf and was instrumental in helping Park earn a $100,000 Success for Veterans Award from the American Council on Education and the Walmart Foundation for the educational needs of transitioning veterans. Park was one of only 20 universities in the country and the
“I feel I’m so fortunate to have made it back home,” he said. “I want to make sure we don’t neglect veterans’ issues. Before we commit to sending troops to fight and defend our nation, we need to know that it’s going to cost more than just bullets and bandages. We also have to be willing to take care of veterans and their families when they return. In some cases, for a lifetime.”
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Published on May 9, 2016
With 140 years of outstanding history and more than 71,000 living alumni, Park University has many great stories to tell. As part of the Uni...