Over 700 students make up the veteran population on campus. The Davis Student Veteran Organization (DSVO), founded in 2010, serves as their representing body.
Student veteran organizations have developed on campus over the past few years with goals to build community, representation and awareness concerning veteran identity. Lack of veteran-specific resources and breaking pervasive stereotypes have been struggles to their efforts.
Though experiences vary, Elias Sanchez, a fourth-year political science and international relations double major and president of DSVO, said that veterans face many obstacles readapting to civilian life.
“Reintegrating into civilization is really hard felt because you have sacrificed so much physically, psychologically, emotionally,” Sanchez said. “The greatest fear I have for veterans is when you have free time that’s the time you have to reflect … The difficulties we have had were never addressed. In the military your emotional needs are not priority one, your mission is priority one. But when you come to a normal setting and people actually ask you, ‘What do you think?’ or ‘How do you feel?’ it [challenges] you to self reflect.”
These issues are indicative of not only the academic, but also the medical and counseling needs of student veterans on campus.
Dr. Romana Norton has been the Community Advising Network (CAN) counselor to the Transfer, Re-entry and Veteran community for five years and throughout that time she has worked to identify the needs of veteran students.
“The military is a very distinct culture … the military’s answer to the traumas and stress that these folks have endured has been a lot of medication and a bootstrap mentality,” Norton said. “The first couple of years was just gathering information and one of the things I realized was that there weren’t any resources on campus. Being a CAN counselor assigned to the veteran population was the first resource besides the TRV center … unique to that population that would be provided on campus.”
The Transfer, Re-Entry and Veteran Center (TRV) established in 2009 has been the resource base for veterans since a majority transferred from community colleges to the UC and must go through Veteran Affairs in order to process their GI Bill benefits.
The Post 9/11 Veteran’s Assistance Act of 2008 has been alluded to as a reason for the increasing student veteran population and has been called the best federal educational benefit provided to veterans since WWII.
Service members who served over 36 months after 9/11 are eligible for full tuition coverage and housing and textbook stipends. Within the bill, there is also a transferability component, meaning service members can transfer benefits to their dependents.
With increased incentive for veterans to attend higher education, the advocacy and presence of student veterans on campus as well as the historical significance of the Memorial Union (MU), the establishment of a student veteran center on the second floor of the MU is expected to commence in fall 2014.
According to John Campbell, executive director of campus recreation and unions, the MU renewal project is expected to last 18 months and will be a comprehensive renovation. The veteran center is expected to provide space for social, counseling and professional outreach on behalf of veterans, and an overall rededication of the MU to revitalize campus awareness of student veterans is also a part of the project.
Victor Garcia, 2011 UC Davis veteran alumnus and TRV advisor, said he knows that current resources are lacking, but believes that combining them in a new center will make them more accessible to students.
“A lot of these veterans are coming into our institutions with specific issues: combat trauma, traumatic brain injury (TBI), PTSD … and what we’re starting to find is that those [particular] needs aren’t being met,” Garcia said. “The center would serve as a launching point for all of our veterans here on campus, as a new place where services and resources can be consolidated … One of the major needs that a lot of our veterans identified was the need for a place … to really come together as a community.”
Norton also sees this need for a consolidation and specialization of resources for veterans and increased communication between them.
“Medical issues are a big issue for student veterans … for instance pain management,” Norton said. “For [veterans] it’s not uncommon to have some sort of injury and not necessarily from combat … We need clinicians on campus that have expertise in combat injuries … What we at UC Davis want to provide them is ‘wrap-around services’ which means [communication] between all the services.”
Sanchez identified with the issue of lacking medical services and referrals on campus. If there is an issue that veterans have that cannot be accommodated in Davis they must travel to the Veteran Affairs (VA) Mather Hospital in Sacramento which has been described by some veterans as a ‘lost day’ with an average four-month waiting period to be seen, according to Norton.
The issue of TBI has also impacted Sanchez personally as one of his fellow DSVO officers had to leave school due to “psychological impediments.”
“A lot of veterans need medical service; they are disabled, they have arthritis and are diagnosed with a lot of different issues,” Sanchez said. “The loss of … a fellow marine from an academic setting really hit me hard because I felt responsible — like I didn’t do enough to help him stay here to accomplish his goal. His loss was ultimately a main motive pushing me towards helping other veterans who are here and may feel that they’re going in it alone when they’re not … it made me revert back to that ‘troop welfare’ mentality.”
Garcia also sees the effort of veteran students lobbying for the establishment of a veteran center as important for the perpetuation of veteran representation on campus.
“The students that did work on the proposal [for the veteran center] have graduated … but a lot of our current veterans who are working for this vet center and carrying forward that proposal to make sure something happens … realize that they’re not doing this for themselves… that their efforts are only going to pay dividends and be fruitful for those who are coming after them,” Garcia said.
Overall awareness and resource accessibility are the goals of DSVO, and for the 2013-2014 school year, their ongoing project will be “What is a Veteran Project” in which student veterans will give video testimonials about their experiences transitioning from the military to academia.
“[There are] a lot of individuals here who have contributed [to DSVO], who are about to graduate or who are student alums whose stories are very compelling to me,” Sanchez said. “Our overall goal is to … inform the community that we have veterans within Davis who are regular individuals who are going through extraordinary trials … and telling other veterans specifically that it’s okay to admit that we have faults, that we have needs … As a former platoon sergeant, my job was to recognize people’s contributions … and I don’t want their stories to go untold.”