Justin Donato - Fellow

Jun 13, 2011
Justin Donato
Justin Donato - Fellow

Justin Donato is comfortable with the unfamiliar.

The son of an Air Force officer, Donato was born in Korea and moved around the U.S. as a boy. By the time he was 10, Donato and his family had settled in New Orleans. Their mid-city neighborhood was a patchwork of Pakistani immigrants, Hispanics, Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans, and others. “You learn your way isn’t the only way,” Donato says of his old neighborhood. “You learn to have an open mind about other people and cultures. It helps you growing up.”

While New Orleans offered diversity, it didn’t offer much career opportunity. So, after high school, Donato enlisted in the Navy as a way to pay for college and “kind of to get away.” Boot camp in Great Lakes, Illinois was bitterly cold for the Louisiana denizen, but Donato reveled in it and his first time seeing snow. The weather wasn’t a shock, and neither was the wide range of people he met.

Donato spent the next few years as an operations specialist on the guided missile cruiser USS Ticonderoga. Sailing off the coast of South America, he coordinated information between his ship and helicopter pilots chasing drug smugglers.

Offered a reassignment to a naval base in Pensacola, Florida,Donato jumped at the chance to be near family that had moved to the area. After a few years doing naval law enforcement work in Pensacola, Donato decided it was time to get out of the military. With a pregnant wife, he didn’t want to risk deployment.

Donato studied business and then communications at a local junior college and worked as a Veterans Administration case worker with young veterans enlisted at the college. He found the work rewarding. His own service-related wear and tear – partial hearing loss, tendinitis in his knees, torn cartilage in his wrist – helped Donato relate to injured veterans searching for health and education benefits. “I know how it is.”

So, the Wounded Warrior Program seemed like a good fit. As a veterans’ case worker in the Pensacola district office of Rep. Jeff Miller, Donato feels like he is making a difference. He also feels like he brings a unique perspective as someone accustomed to many different perspectives. “I can’t relate to a Vietnam vet because I wasn’t there, but what I can do is listen and do what I can to help,” he says. “Every case is different.”