Depressed. Homeless. Aimless. That was Tony Gamage’s story 10 years ago.

Today, the 70-year-old tells a different story. Not only did Gamage graduate from San Jacinto College in 2022, but he’s continuing his education in social work to help others rebuild their lives.

Joining the Navy

The oldest of seven, Gamage grew up in Maine during the Vietnam War. When Gamage graduated high school in 1970, he enlisted in the Navy.

Gamage worked as an intercommunications fireman on a destroyer escort that sailed the Caribbean and Mediterranean. After his service ended in 1974, he spent 30 years as a missionary in Greece, India, Turkey, and Mexico. 

Taking road back to school

Gamage and his family spent a few years in Texas before returning overseas. When his wife separated from him, he returned to Texas alone. Depression followed, so the VA hospital referred him to individual and group therapy.

While therapy revealed triggers from childhood issues, it also revealed other veterans’ needs.

“In the waiting room, we would talk, and everything seemed cool,” he said. “When we went inside, something would trigger people, and they would start telling what they were going through.”

From PTSD to traumatic brain injuries, veterans coped through isolation, self-medication, and alcohol.

“Witnessing that broke me,” Gamage said. “Their spouses didn’t understand. They suffered in silence.”

Broke and unemployed, Gamage filed for Social Security. In 2019, he got approved for disability for hearing loss stemming from his time in the Navy. This also qualified him for vocational rehabilitation services and higher education.

“I had asked the Lord, ‘What’s my purpose to be here?’ It was only a month or two later the school thing opened, and I saw my reason,” Gamage said.

Starting college at 68

In spring 2020, Gamage pursued a social and behavioral science associate degree at San Jac. 

At 68, he could have been most classmates’ grandfather, but thanks to his Navy background, he modeled focus and discipline to younger students. 

“What an older person can recognize is you have something to give others,” he said. “You’ve been through a school of experiences, so you have a wealth to offer.”

In May 2022, decked in cords and stole, boasting a 3.72 GPA, Gamage accepted his diploma as the most senior graduate in San Jac’s commencement ceremony.

Finding, giving hope

Now at University of Houston-Clear Lake, Gamage is pursuing an advanced bachelor’s degree program in social work and eyeing a one-year master’s program.

He volunteers for Texas Advocates for Justice, which helps incarcerated people, including veterans, navigate court and transition back to society. Eventually, he will dedicate himself to that mission.

Gamage understands both despair and hope and still attends monthly group therapy.

“I’m not afraid to tell people I have depression and anxiety,” he said. “Once you’ve had a serious case, it doesn’t go away, but you learn to manage it.”

Would he change his story? Looking back, he calls every detail “orchestrated.” 

“Anything good is only God,” he said. “The ups and downs have all been designed. God has a perfect plan for all of us.”

  By Courtney Morris