Student veterans look to form veterans group

SHEPHERDSTOWN – A group of student veterans at Shepherd University are hoping to ease the transition of returning military personnel into academic life with the formation of an official chapter of the Student Veterans of America at the university.

Since April, Bruce Burgess and several other student veterans have been working to organize, obtain funding and work with Shepherd’s administration to form the organization. Burgess said such a group is necessary because cultural factors from military life can sometimes create obstacles for the more than 200 student veterans currently attending Shepherd.

“We love Shepherd. The professors are amazing. The students are amazing. The town is amazing,” Burgess said, adding veterans nonetheless face unique challenges in the classroom. “We’re a very diverse, varied population that a traditional school format is not always prepared for.

A group of student veterans at Shepherd University is working to build a chapter of the Student Veterans of America, which they say will help students who have served in the armed forces navigate both school life and the veterans benefits systems. Pictured above, left to right, are Navy sonar technician Lauren Winebrenner, Army bomb technician Bruce Burgess, Marine Corps machine gunner Frank Amaya, and Marine Corps combat trainer Heather Boulware.

“In the military … you are inspired to toughen up, feel no pain, drive on, suffer through, always be the tough guy,” said Burgess, who served 15 years as an Army bomb technician with two deployments to Iraq and is now a Shepherd senior working toward a degree in mass communications. “I find student veterans who wander the campus looking for the solution to a problem, but they won’t ask for help. The training has taught them that pride and self-worth are somehow tied to being completely independent and tough.”

As these veterans who have just completed their service return, they face a sometimes difficult task of re-entry into civilian society: into a work force where the unemployment rate for veterans is well above that for the general population, into a veterans benefits system that is sometimes complex to navigate successfully, and into colleges where life is very different from life in the armed forces.

They are currently working to establish an official university chapter of the Student Veterans of America to help returning military personnel successfully integrate into school life and navigate the benefits system.

Burgess said this is the group’s second attempt at forming the student veterans group after an effort made by organizers last year never got off the ground.

Many student veterans must deal with the physical and psychological wounds of war. Because of the prevalence of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, in both the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, traumatic brain injury rates have been very high compared to previous armed conflicts. The veteran population returning from these wars also has a very high rate of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

Conditions such as these can cause difficulties in the classroom, said Lauren Winebrenner, a Navy sonar technician now in her second year at Shepherd.

The Student Veterans of America chapter Burgess and Winebrenner envision would include a mentoring program to help veterans dealing with service-related injuries navigate the system to ensure that they achieve positive outcomes.

Compared to the existing counseling system, Burgess said, a mentoring system “is more private.”

“And then you are not going to a civilian university employee who has no understanding – and their heart might be in the right place – and saying, ‘I am having nightmares every night. They are keeping me up. The medications from (Veterans Affairs) aren’t doing as well as they thought they would. Who can help me advocate with my professor and medical advisor to find a good solution?’” he said.

Burgess, who deals with PTSD symptoms himself, said the “crazy veteran” stereotype does not capture the true nature of the condition.

“The perception we hear all the time is about the crazy, violent veteran, the drug abuser, the alcoholic, the spousal abuser,” he said. “I have no criminal record. I don’t even have a speeding ticket. The assumptions made about PTSD are basically wrong, but they still are pervasive. The more we engage with other students and the community, the more people will get to know us and realize that just because you were in combat doesn’t mean you’re an animal.”

Burgess said Shepherd’s calm, small-town atmosphere can be therapeutic for combat veterans.

“This town is so calm that I hear many students say that their time at Shepherd is the best thing that ever happened to their PTSD. The hyper-vigilance, the always being on guard seems to trickle away here in this warm, calm university and this little town.”

Burgess says one of the things the forming group will need will be funding donated by the public.

“We don’t need a lot,” he said. “We are not an expensive organization. We will do most of it ourselves. Nonetheless, the group will need some funding to get off the ground and to begin providing vital services to the veteran population at Shepherd.”

Bruce Burgess can be contacted at shepherduniversityveterans@gmail.com.

Veterans Day eventsPancake breakfast: Anna Mae Reedy Senior Center, 103 W. Fifth Ave., Ranson Friday from 7 to 9 a.m. Price will be $3 for those 60 years and up; $4 for those 59 years and under. Carry-out will be available. Pancakes, sausage links, hash brown patties, scrambled eggs and baked apples will be on the menu.

 

Celebration: Jefferson High School Friday starting at 10 a.m. The JHS ROTC will perform a flag raising ceremony to start the ceremony. A keynote speaker will be featured at 10:30. At 11, veterans in attendance will be presented certificates. Those planning to attend need to call 304-725-4045 by Wednesday so that a certificates can be made for each veteran in attendance.

 

American Legion veterans ceremony: Jefferson Memorial Park Sunday starting at 11 a.m. Guest speaker will be Lt. Col. Rodney E. Neely. Free soup and sandwich lunch for all following the ceremony.

 

Dinner: Asbury United Methodist Church in Charles Town will honor local veterans by providing dinner for a veteran and one guest Sunday at 5 p.m. There is no charge for this event. RSVP by calling 304-725-5513.

 

Program: The annual Veterans Day program at Sylvannah Praise Worship and Healing Center in Rippon will be held Sunday at 3 p.m. For more information, call 304-283-1264 or email cyates60@comcast.net.

 

Special service: Williams Memorial United Methodist Church in Shenandoah Junction will honor all veterans at a special service Sunday. A covered dish dinner will follow the 11 a.m. service.

 

VFW Armistice Day ceremony: Jefferson Memorial Park Sunday starting at 11 a.m.

 

Veterans parade: Starting at the Post Office in Bolivar at 9:30 a.m. Monday.

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