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Student Veterans Organization helps student veterans adjust to college life

For seven years, Sgt. Valerie Brown was a Blackhawk mechanic and crew chief in the U.S. Army.

Now, Brown is secretary of the UMKC Student Veterans Organization (SVO), a national affiliate of the Student Veterans of America (SVA).

“We knew we needed a group for soldiers to get together for peer support and to make it easier to adjust to school life and civilian life,” Brown said.

The SVO, which has about 20 active members, also assists student veterans with tuition, scholarships and the GI Bill. However, the group’s resources are available to all student veterans, regardlessof whether or not they are active members.

The SVA, of which Brown is the South Central Regional Director, was founded in 2008 to advocate for student veterans and create a network of resources, ideas and support. Today, there are 318 chapters nationally and growing.

SVA’s 2010 priorities (listed at www.studentveterans.org), include expanding the Post-9/11 GI Bill, improving mental health care and improving job prospects for veteran graduates.

However, while the SVO is affiliated with and shares the same goals as the SVA, SVO President Sgt. Spencer Fenton said the SVO, created in May, was founded before students realized the SVA existed.

“It was a collective recognition that there was a need for a group,” Fenton said. “Because of UMKC being a commuter school, there was a disconnect among people making this drastic transition in their lives, especially from active duty. We wanted to facilitate that transition and make it as smooth as possible.”

For many veterans, the transition from active duty to civilian life is challenging because civilian life lacks the same rigid structure as the military.

“It’s difficult because we’re used to a certain way of life and certain amount of discipline that not everyone has,” Brown said.

Some veterans experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a result of combat, and most have witnessed traumatic events few Americans have dealt with.

Fenton, like Brown, was deployed in Iraq. Prior to attending UMKC, he was a nuclear biological chemical specialist in the 82nd Airborne Division of the Army.

“As stressful as it is, the things you worry about are greatly reduced,” Fenton said of his service. “If you come off patrol and all your guys are intact and you’re still okay, then it’s a pretty good day.”

By “intact,” Fenton said he meant “alive.”

“It’s hard to comprehend at times,” he said. “When you see a guy or know of someone that’s passed that you literally saw hours before and you know it’s not going to be that way from there on out, there’s a change in the air. It resonates with everyone whether they knew them personally or not.”

Brown said veterans sometimes experience insensitivity on campus.

“The worst question that many veterans around many campuses get asked is, ‘Have you killed anyone?’” she said. “It is okay to ask us questions, but please remember that some questions are inappropriate in nature and should never be asked.”

Fenton said talking to students on campus gave him an opportunity to repudiate stereotypes about veterans.

“Overall, it’s been pretty positive,” Fenton said. “Some people think we’re brainwashed and that we’re warmongers. After spending some time talking to me, those stereotypes are broken down, and positive relationships develop most of the time.”

Brown recalls a similar experience with one of her professors.

“On the first day of class, he asked us to raise our hands if we were vets,” she recalls. “No one raised their hand.”

Later, Brown said, the professor said veterans were “brainwashed” and “unable to think for themselves.”

Brown wore her military fatigue to class the day of finals.

“He stopped me afterward and said, ‘Thank you. Having you in class has been an eye-opening experience,” she said.

Brown added her overall experience with professors has been positive.

The SVO is currently planning a tailgating party at the MU vs. KU game at Arrowhead Stadium on Nov. 27 to raise money for Harvesters, a local food pantry.

A Roasterie Coffee Fundraiser for the SVO is also planned. Brown said bags of Roasterie coffee with the SVO logo will be sold in the organization’s office, located in Room 303C in the Student Union. Office hours are 1:30-5 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

However, Brown said the coffee is still being roasted and won’t be available for at least another month.

Fenton said the SVO will plan additional service events and is looking to work with other campus organizations.

“[Community service] is a big and continually growing aspect of [SVO],” he said. “We want student veterans to have the same and optimal college experience that everyone else gets. We’re here because we want to better ourselves just like everyone else, plain and simple.”

nzoschke@unews.com

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