Story and photograph by KEITH LAMAR McDONALD
Located on the fourth floor of the A. Ray Olpin Union building is a small office where a close-knit interest group forms. A large detailed painting of an American flag graces the front entrance. Underneath is a bronze statue of a helmet, combat boots and an M-16. On the right side of the office is a row of cabinets adorned with various ranks from the four branches of the military. The staff includes a representative from the library, health and benefits counselors, GI Bill workers and the center’s director. They occupy different offices on the left flank and in the rear, forming a contingent of eight. They are charged with the task of helping the University of Utah’s military veterans improve and enrich themselves by earning a college degree.
The Veterans Support Center helps former soldiers, airmen, seamen and marines with transitioning from a military lifestyle to that of a citizen and student, which can be a difficult task. The slogan on its website is “Boots to Utes” and it specializes in equipping veterans at the U with the tools they need to graduate.
Former servicewomen and -men lounge on couches, study, get information about their GI Bill and benefits and talk about any and every subject — but mostly their service to their country. The 2,100-square-foot office space features free printing and coffee, plush seating, a computer lab, a meeting room and a place for student veterans to unwind, all in the hopes of making veterans’ transition to the U as smooth as possible.
“The biggest hurdles in the way of assimilation are the lack of structure, less traveling, and dealing with reduced responsibilities,” said Air Force Master Sgt. George Sanon in a phone interview. Sanon is an active member of the Veterans Support Center at Prairie State University in Chicago Heights and received his first college degree after the age of 50.
Roger L. Perkins, a former army major and the director of the U’s Veterans Support Center, said patrons of the center are normally in their mid-20s. However, some of his clients are well beyond their 60th birthday.
Veterans need the same things as any other student, such as information on what classes to take and how or where to resolve issues. The military is more organized than the civilian world when it comes to “redress of grievances,” Perkins said. In many cases the Veterans Support Center acts as an advocate for students who have troubles on campus with issues such as financial aid, GI Bill or the VA hospital.
Some veterans, like Mark Bean, are prospering in school after a full military career.
Bean, 66, is a doctoral student in international relations who teaches political science at the U. At 6 feet 2 inches tall, he is slim and has a strong aura about him. He is sharp and quick-witted. He graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy and served in the Air Force in the Vietnam War. He retired with the rank of colonel after a little more than 25 years of service as a C-130 pilot and political military affairs worker. Before his (military) retirement in 1995, he graduated with a master’s degree from UCLA.
Just because Bean has reached social security age, it doesn’t mean he is ready for a walker and assisted living. “I don’t plan on retiring any time soon,” he said.
Bean added, “I don’t consider myself to be an aging veteran, I’d say my Dad’s generation are aging vets.” His father is a retired World War II veteran who is 92 years old and still enjoys telling his son stories.
During an interview at the center, Bean noted that “things have dramatically changed for veterans” over the years. “I think there is a difference in how veterans are treated now. Aging veterans are afforded a great deal of respect these days. Veterans were not held in high regards in the past.”
He said some aging student veterans might feel like they are being overloaded with information. Learning about new programs, social networking websites and electronics that their classmates already know how to use may take a while. In addition, he said some aging vets were not raised with the Internet and the glut of information and sources could be confusing.
Sylvia O’Hara, a veteran of the Army National Guard and an executive assistant at the Veterans Support Center, said rhetoric is the main problem with aging students (and veterans as a whole) transitioning from military life to civilian and student life. Civilians can be passive-aggressive, whereas military personnel use blunt expressions. For example, using profane language in the military is generally accepted but in the civilian world it is not.
Perkins, the center’s director, said, “The center provides a place for veterans to share like interests and similar experiences. I can say things to the vets here that I could not say to my wife.”
The majority of the students at the U are fresh out of high school, he continued, while aging military veterans are worldlier and may not understand contemporary phrases. Perkins said the center is important because veterans can bond with people they relate to and share stories. Military veterans, young and old, understand the same acronyms, traveled to the same bases and share the same unique job skills.
Aging veterans at the U are actively growing and evolving with each other in their own corner of campus. What they seek most, Perkins said, is solidarity. “Most aging veterans, and what I mean by aging vets is Vietnam-era guys that are in their 50s and 60s, they’re not looking for help,” he said, “they’re looking to offer help.”