Blog

Guest Blog: Make it Count

By the Student Veterans of America President and CEO, D. Wayne Robinson.

As you settle into the new semester, make it count by lending a helping hand

By the time you’re reading this, classes have started up on college campuses around the country and the semester is in full swing. The scene is much the same as in years previous: syllabi have been handed out and summarily discarded, students justify ignoring the professor with a PowerPoint presentation they’ll wait to open until the night before the final, and the lecture halls have stratified themselves into the barely conscious in back, and overly alert and eager in the front.

20140817_SVASeattle2014-62[1]You may notice one difference, however. Around campus and in among the mixed enthusiasm in the classroom are a handful of veterans. You may also notice that that handful is just a little bit larger than the few you spotted last semester, and the one before. This is no coincidence, and it isn’t unique to your campus.

Since the attacks of September 11 2001, close to 3 million veterans have served in our armed forces[1], and all will soon have returned to their homes and communities. Of those, roughly a third have been and are expected to take advantage of their GI Bill™ benefits[2]. That’s a lot of degree-seeking veterans, and chances are, they’ll end up being your partner on a group project, or the guy who holds open the lecture hall door for you.

With the passage of the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014, student veterans have their pick of any public institution nationwide, as long as they take advantage of their benefits and enroll within three years of service separation.  This has dramatically broadened their educational options, which means that the handful you encounter now will soon fill out more of the classrooms around campus.

SVA-Leadership-Conference-San-Diego-20140809-289[1]As the presence of this population grows, so too does the need for on-campus, veteran-focused resources. We at SVA stress the importance of peer-based support through our ground-up chapter structure employed on 1,100 campuses nationwide (and growing), and projects such as our VetCenter Initiative. While camaraderie and shared experience is indispensable to the long-term success of student veterans, it’s only one piece of the puzzle. Some of these veterans will come with wounds both visible and invisible, with internal struggles and physical barriers, but all will need you to go that extra mile.

These struggles and disabilities look different for each veteran, and often are not visible. This can be aggravated when environmental barriers and a lack of on-campus supports prevent physical, academic, and social access to veterans who aren’t always aware of their disabilities. Add intensive military training that inhibits self-care and negative stereotypes into the mix, and the formula for failure is complete. With a bit of mindfulness, however, equal access need no longer be accommodated.

A truly veteran-supportive campus is one where both familiar faces with familiar experiences can be counted upon to empathize, and unfamiliar faces with vastly different backgrounds are willing to strive for understanding and cooperation. A kind word, a friendly nod, or a heartfelt handshake can speak volumes to a struggling student veteran.

The same can be said of the campus’ administration. Support services provided in a non-stigmatizing, encompassing manner can make a world of difference. “The key to engagement lies with positioning support services as part of a team effort for all students to achieve success, not as a remedial effort for individuals expected to fail,” says The NASPA Foundation, in a study[3] demonstrating that the content of service programs matter just as much as the delivery.

With backing from peers, and a welcoming student body and accommodating administration, student veterans have the tools to make sure they have the same opportunity to hang their prohibitively expensive diploma in a $14 frame as everyone else. So, whether it’s on the way to class, cramming in the library, or grabbing some lunch in the dining hall, make your semester count by lending a hand to a student veteran.

For more information on our programs and initiatives, or to find a chapter near you, please visit www.studentveterans.org.

70th Anniversary of D-Day: A Tribute

The overcast sky was an appropriate omen to the reality of that summer day. The humming of planes resonated loudly. Even if the men could hear one other talking, no one spoke a word. There was a certain understanding of what they would soon face, and their likely last moments would be spent in self-reflection. Though internally overwrought with fear, acceptance of their likely fates and recognition of this just cause gave them some sense of serenity.

The droning engines were soon peppered with loud, intermittent booms. A passive thunder on such an overcast day seemed unsurprising. Through the gray fog, a faint glimpse of the rocky inlays of the shore could be seen, the beach shielded from vision by the tall bulkhead of the boat they occupied.

The booms grew louder and louder. The closer to the shore they came, the harder their hearts pounded. The firing of guns and explosions of bombs paled in comparison to that metronomic thumping in their chests.  The distinct smell of gunpowder filled the air, further fueling their inner angst with adrenaline. Water continued to splash inside what felt like a metal coffin. They couldn’t see the channel’s open water next to them, but felt every percussive shock from the shells exploding around them.

And for a brief, fleeting moment, a final calm came over them. Looking up into the gray sky, thousands upon thousands of white parachutes danced in the wind, inching closer to the water and what awaited them on the beach.

The boat came to a sudden halt. The metal doors swung open and in that moment, they stared their own mortality in the face, and defied every basic instinct of self-preservation for the sake of preserving good in the world. Bullets humming by their ears, brothers in arms dropping into the bloodstained water, shells exploding all around, the rocky hills in front of them seemed miles away.

And today, we are grateful.

June 6, 1944 was a defining day in the history of the United States and the entire world. In the face of danger, uncertainty, fear and doubt, nearly 160,000 Allied servicemen stormed the beaches of Normandy to face the German Army head on. They stood in defense of our nation and made sure that good would prevail.

On the 70th Anniversary of D-Day, please recognize what bravery really looks like. It is seen on the aging faces of the Greatest Generation. They are the ones who, against all odds, refused to let evil win, and were willing to give their lives for that cause.

To our World War II veterans, your sacrifices will not be forgotten, and the debt of gratitude owed to you by every American might be impossible to repay.

To our Greatest Generation, we say thank you.

Clarence: An Inspirational Story on Overcoming Traumatic Brain Injury

Clarence

Meet Clarence.

Clarence is the young veteran working at the mill machine in the photo you see above. He has been out of the military for 3 years now, having served in combat right out of high school.

Clarence is currently finishing out the Advanced Inclusive Manufacturing (AIM) program at the Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL) at the University of Pittsburgh. This program is one that teaches veterans like Clarence the basics of machinery, which will give them a leg up in a high-demand field.

Clarence suffered a major traumatic brain injury (TBI) during a deployment. Now he has a form of visual agnosia, in which he lacks the ability to visually recall images in his mind. He told us during our visit to the HERL lab that remembering how an object should look when he is working on a project is a challenge because his lack of visual recall.

The good news is that Clarence was hardly feeling defeated by this drawback. Actually, he was very upbeat when telling us about it. Though he can’t picture in his mind how to do something, he instead draws a map for himself as he goes that allows him to complete the task.

Clarence completed his military service at age 22. The native Texan spent time at his home in Austin, focusing on his medical treatment. He told us that while he was readjusting, he was feeling somewhat demoralized.

He said he had several friends his age who had also finished their military service, and, as he described, “did nothing but sit around and play video games, and sometimes get mixed up in drugs.”

“My options were limited in Texas,” Clarence said. “I saw so many of my friends fall into the same trap of drugs and laziness. I knew I needed to do something better than that. I was working on getting better, but never lost ambition.”

And Clarence could have fallen into that trap. He was an intelligence analyst in the military and he had a top-secret security clearance. His goal after his service ended was to enter a similar civilian post as an analyst. Unfortunately, he lost his clearance as a direct result of his brain injury. Once that happened, he wasn’t really sure what to do.

As fate would have it, the VA hospital where Clarence was getting his treatment became less accessible due to the sheer number of veterans in need of treatment. Clarence took a trip to the Pittsburgh VA for a while so he could get the specialized treatment he needed. It was there that he met Dr. Cooper.

Clarence was used to working with his hands. He told us that he grew up hunting and fishing and loved every second of it. He decided to enter the Experiential Learning for Veterans in Assistive Technology Engineering (ELeVATE) program, where he would learn the basics of machinery, and would later move on to the AIM program.

Clarence had a new outlook on things. He was capable of working machinery, and had plans of his own. Given his love of bow hunting and archery, he wanted to do something that would allow others with disabilities to enjoy that same rush that he got with a bow in his hand. He told us that his goal is to take his training from HERL and manufacture adaptive archery equipment.

IMG_4181

This is just one example of the tremendous work that Dr. Rory Cooper and his team at HERL are doing for veterans with disabilities. Not only are they training veterans in a high-demand field, but they are also teaching them coping mechanisms to overcome their own disabilities, while encouraging these veterans to take what they learn and work for the benefit of others with challenges.

DVNF has partnered with HERL to purchase a new lathe. A lathe is a basic piece of machinery that is one of the keystones of basic engineering. Many devices are made from a lathe, so it only makes sense that their lab would teach these veterans how to use a lathe.

The problem is that their lathe is a piece of World War II surplus equipment! Unlike most of the devices in their lab, this machine is anything but modern, and they told us that it is hard to teach veterans how to use it.

So, we are going to help Dr. Rory Cooper and his team to buy a new lathe. We will give them the $50,000 necessary to purchase it, so that veterans can learn this valuable skill, and take their training on into the real world and help other veterans in need.

5 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Women Vets

This March, DVNF is celebrating Women’s History Month. Their service was overlooked for decades, but they have been an integral force in our military’s operations.

We cannot thank them enough for all they have done, and want them to know how truly important they are, and have always been, to the operation of the U.S. Military.

So, here are 5 things you probably didn’t know about women veterans!

womenfacts

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yuba-Sutter Stand Down- Day 2

We arrived at the grassy basin once again on Friday, the weather identical to Thursday. The difference today though, the population of veterans and volunteers had more than doubled! We could tell immediately that we were going to have a very active day. More tents and RV’s had been set up, most for healthcare services. The Red Cross also sent in a truck and representatives were handing out various good to the vets and their families.

The strange part about it was that this event on the second day almost seemed like base camp in a war zone. In a way, it sort of was—just a very different type of war. This was a war on homelessness, a crusade to remember the forgotten, a battle to provide. The much needed reinforcements had arrived. The wounds of the warriors were not plainly visible, but look close enough, and you could see them as clear as the northern California sun. That is why so many volunteers showed up—to tend to the wounds that had been left untreated for so very long.

I had the chance to speak with a VA social worker who was in attendance that day, named Mike Miracle. Mike was a very pleasant individual with a calming demeanor. Mike had served in this capacity for 37 years with the Army and the VA. He told me something that really had never occurred to me. He said that he still has clients from WWII and Korea that cope with PTSD in some capacity. Can you imagine having to cope with troubling memories for 60+ years? It makes you respect these men and women even more.

The second day was much warmer than the first, but it didn’t stop the massive show of support. I met several veterans who were overwhelmed with gratitude from the event. Lanny Montgomery, a Vietnam veteran was all smiles when I spoke to him. Lanny started a PTSD support group for veterans in the area who couldn’t seem to find the help they were looking for. He said that simply discussing the common problems that PTSD causes, amongst a group of people who know exactly how you are suffering, can make such a big difference. He also mentioned that it was actually his group that helped to pave the way for such Stand Down events in the area, and that it flattering to know that DVNF had come all the way from DC to help out.

As the day began to wind down, I caught a glimpse of something across the basin and became interested. People kept approaching this gentleman who was wearing a red blazer, and then he would stop and take a picture with them. Assuming he was some sort of celebrity I began to walk closer to the tent he was under. I soon realized that this man was much older than anyone else I had seen at the Stand Down. Then, I figured out who he was. His name was Lenard Yates—one of the original Tuskegee Airmen! He was kind enough to let me take a picture of him, as well as another veteran who was just as eager to meet Mr. Yates as I was. What a great way to end the day.

Lenard Yates, one of the original Tuskegee Airmen

We left Marysville overwhelmed at how much effort was put into this Stand Down. We were also pleased knowing that veterans in this part of California are in good hands thanks to the appreciative and compassionate people that make up the community.

Yuba-Sutter Veterans Stand Down – Day 1

We arrived at the event in Riverfront Park Thursday morning and everyone was in high gear. Tents set up, people bustling about every which way. The location at the park was perfect. All tents were set up in a shallow basin adjacent to the river. The grass, a rich green with oak trees scattered sparsely across the plot—not overwhelming the area, but providing an ideal amount of shade. Naturally, for a late August day in northern California, the sun was bright, and there was not a cloud in the sky.

The sounds of the leaves faintly brushing around in the trees and voices filling the air, only occasionally interrupted by the sounds of a Harley’s deep, perpetual groaning. The motorcycles, as you can imagine, were abundant, for these were predominantly Veterans of Vietnam, “Eternal Riders” as they call themselves.

Three whole days in late August were dedicated solely for the benefit of veterans in California. The providers for this Stand Down ran the gamut: local mental health groups, the American Legion, local salons, VA mobile vet center, Salvation Army, massage therapists, and many others were present. Recology, the waste services company for the Marysville area even provided the food for the first day! A local salon gave free haircuts for two whole days as well. Talk about a show of support!

As I stood on the edge of the basin observing the layout of the event, a peculiar smell hit me. When I discovered the source, I was rather intrigued. It was coming from the American Indian Veterans Association (AIVA) tent, where they were burning sage. I became interested in the organization. I spoke at length with one of its representatives, Pedro Molina, or “Chief Mo” as he was known. He told me about AIVA and its outreach and advocacy work on behalf of Native American veterans. He informed me that California has roughly 20,000 Native American Veterans and that AIVA’s goal was to reach out to all of them, especially in the rural areas and let them know of the benefits they are entitled to.

Chief Mo

Chief Mo was serious about the organization’s mission, but he was certainly not without humor. He was a member of the Yaqui Tribe in Arizona, which was not recognized by the government until 1979. He went on to tell me about his being drafted in 1970, saying, “When I got drafted I couldn’t help but laugh at the irony—I can’t win a game of bingo to save my life, but I got drafted  number three!” The laughs continued as he told me he began his Army career as an airborne cook. “Basically, I was jumping out of a plane with a stove on my back,” he joked.

Another unique organization caught my attention. The Healing Light Institute was right next to the women’s health tent that DVNF sponsored for the event. I was fortunate enough to speak to the director of the organization, Donna Arz. She started what was called the Forgotten Soldier program as a way to treat veterans through alternative therapy, such as guided imagery, therapeutic massage, holistic nutrition, and grief counseling, to name a few of their services. Donna and her associate, April Anderson, told me how common it is for veterans with PTSD to turn to alternative therapy when medication and other common treatments are not successful. It was at that point they told me about the suicide prevention program they have, and how they saved a decorated Marine from ending his own life. I was in awe when I watched the news report about it.

I also had the chance to speak with Mike Nichols, the President of Yuba Sutter Stand Down. Mike himself is a Vietnam veteran who works daily to help his fellow veterans. He said that 638 veterans attended the Stand Down in 2011, and that they were expecting even more this year. Mike was able to paint a picture of the veteran mindset for me. I asked him why he thought that there were so many homeless Vietnam veterans. He stated the obvious facts about how unappreciated Vietnam vets were upon their return, but then he elaborated. As he put it, most of these veterans are homeless because they choose to be. They had been cast aside in society long ago, and it is something that stays with them.

When Mike said this, I began to look around at all the veterans in attendance. Long gray hair, scraggly beards, cigarettes permanently fixated upon their lips, and draped in black leather, these men were true warriors. Not just because of their time on the field of battle, but because they have been fighting their whole lives, and still do today. Most that you might greet will give you a brusque “hello,” and move on, cautious of your motives. These are a tough bunch of men, who have never truly seemed to give any sort of trust to anyone in society that wasn’t one of their own.

As April Anderson said to me, so many of these vets have been carrying a heavy burden their whole lives. The hardened expressions on the leathery faces of these veterans tell a story that is difficult to comprehend for those of us who will never experience what they have. Their experience and the difficulty of their lives cannot be perceived by an outsider, which is why they band together in homogenous subcultures—a fraternity of the forgotten, trusting only one another.

Though this may be their perception, it is not the reality. While most won’t understand the intricacies of their struggles, there were hundreds of civilians in Marysville that day that were there to remember, honor, apologize, thank, and pay homage to the men and women who were shown a disrespect that cannot be forgiven.

As Congressman John Garamendi stated in his opening remarks for the event, “We thank them for all they have done, and it is our responsibility as citizens to serve them.” That was the purpose of the Stand Down, to serve the veterans that fell through the cracks.