They deserve a hero’s welcome, but all too often returning veterans barely register to their fellow Americans as people who need help.
One college group is working to change that, for both student veterans and the community as a whole.
Armed with a $5,000 grant from the Home Depot Foundation, the Student Veterans Association at the Oakwood campus of the University of North Georgia has stretched that funding for three projects, including adding to their own space on campus.
Part of the funds went to stock the Military Resource Center at the college with various school and testing supplies, as well as a new microwave and refrigerator.
The resource center is a place where student veterans can study, use computers and tutoring services, or just relax in front of the television. It’s a small area in the Dunlap-Mathis Building, comprising of a television room, computer station and two study rooms.
The space opened for use in the spring.
“It’s amazing,” said UNG student Mike Albea, 31. He is an Air Force veteran and the treasurer for the vets association. “I can’t tell you how many papers I’ve written in here, because if you go into the library, there’s probably around 30 or 40 computers in there, and if you don’t get one early, you’re not going to get one.”
Albea said the space also offers an area for “downtime,” especially for students who are spending the entire day on campus.
“Rather than just sitting in the student center, hearing all this noise and you can’t really relax,” he said. “You can come in here, sit down and have a conversation with somebody who has been in situations like yourself.”
“It’s an excellent idea,” agreed Daren Thompson, 32. He was with the U.S. Navy for five years, and is the association’s acting president. “It’s an excellent place to share with (other student veterans) with the same background. It makes connecting with other people a lot easier.”
That was the entire point of a space, said Tonya Butler-Collins an association co-adviser. Collins, a veteran herself, explained that coming back to civilian life can be a tough transition.
Future plans are to make it as comfortable as possible for students.
“Our goal, really, is to make this not so boring,” she said laughing and gesturing to the blank, white walls. She hopes to hang more student pictures and military flags.
There are about 30 active members of the association on the Oakwood campus, but more than 100 student veterans at the school. While the students and advisers acknowledge it’s unrealistic to get everyone involved in the group, that is their goal.
“I walked in and I didn’t know anything about it,” Albea said. “I just walked in and thought that this was neat, this will help out a lot. There’s no way they can know what this club can do for them until they step in.”
Some of the $5,000 grant went toward improvements to the Northeast Georgia Homeless Veterans Shelter in Winder and also to install a wheelchair ramp in a Vietnam veteran’s Marietta home.
“The military is sort of, like, we don’t have to be blood related to be family,” said Didi Ucherkemur, 25. Ucherkemur served in the U.S. Marine Corps and is the association’s treasurer. “It’s sad to see someone who went out to war, who did stuff for you, who sacrificed their limbs for you, and you see them out in the streets. That’s kind of screwed up in a way.
“They feel like someone failed them. So for us, we like to go out and help them out because nobody understands more than us.”
The plight of many veterans is a concern for the association as it continues to develop its goals as a group.
“Forty-two percent of all homeless people in this country are veterans, believe it or not,” said association co-adviser and veteran Vincent Ramsey. He added that female veterans are a largely underserved population.
Ramsey and Collins said there are many long-term goals for the association, including developing a shelter just for female veterans.
“The first step is just bringing awareness (to the problem),” Collins said.
She said she is working hand-in-hand with groups in Hall County.
“We want to make Hall County a model community for others,” she said.