After disregarding the fact that most water heaters come out to the outside of the van--and that no one would intentionally use all that silicone to fill a 3/4 inch gap around the outside trim--- I gave one more try at cutting the silicone around the outside trim. I used a painter's knife(it has a sharp end and stiff blade) which allowed using a hammer to work the knife around the trim and keep the handle curved away from the paint.
Once I worked around the trim--the outer trim came off relatively easy. 3 screws allowed removal of the water heater plate and now I can install a new one--the correct way.
While I may not always know what I am doing--I do provide comic relief !!