Students, administrators tackle veteran support quandary
When a soldier comes home a veteran, having completed their service, transitioning back into the hive life of civilian is, for some, seamless. For others, it is more fraught.
Until recently, veterans who made the decision to pursue a degree at UAF were afforded ways of coping with the transition by the university. They could share their experiences with other veterans at the Student Veterans of UAF club. They could also share them with UAF Health Center counselors, with whom all students are entitled to five free sessions. Finally, if things got really bad, they could go see Walter Crary.
Crary is a veterans service officer, or VSO, and his job entails a working knowledge of the myriad nuances related to educational, medical and death benefits awarded to veterans for their service as they settled back into civilian society. Crary and his staff also provided the only on-campus support specifically for student veterans.
Just shy of the 2017 Fall semester, however, Crary was told that his office was to relocate from the Eielson Building to an off-campus location, and on Friday, Sept. 8, he complied. The move has since left campus veterans with mixed feelings.
Troy Bunce, a 30-year-old digital journalism major and army veteran who worked as a medic, is displeased with the move. Previously, Bunce and other student veterans used the area to study, ask questions, and find a community of veterans with whom they could relate.
“I hung out with a lot of the veterans on a daily basis and all of the sudden I got word that the office was getting closed,” Bunce says, recounting the abruptness of the move.
Having the office on campus made it convenient to stop by between classes, according to Bunce, and the move has since made it difficult to receive support.
University administrators moved new staff into Crary’s now-empty office a week after his departure in an interdepartmental effort to provide student veterans with help in navigating their education benefits. However, Bunce believes the environment has changed in regards to the support previously offered by a VSO being on campus. Bunce said the new staff members are helpful when it comes to paying for schooling.
“But yeah, no, it’s not anywhere near a veteran’s community at all,” he said. “It’s a whole bunch of civilians who have no idea what they’re doing.”
Paul Perreault, a Vietnam War veteran and adjunct professor teaching Arctic engineering and civil engineering at the university, shares Bunce’s concerns over whether the new staff, as civilians, are capable of tending to the needs of veterans.
Perreault visited the old office intermittently and says his experiences there were positive. He said he found the staff to be incredibly hardworking and frequently observed them working with new student veterans adjust to life on campus.
“As a Vietnam Vet, I felt kicked off campus,” he said about his decision to not come by the office once new staff were brought in. “I felt no need to go by.”
Perreault emphasized that it was the office moving off campus he found upsetting. He says the proximity to student veterans was important and wonders why a different space on campus couldn’t have been found instead. Perreault questions the intention of the move, wondering why it took two weeks for the university to post an update regarding the office change.
The university received an email from the Department of Military and Veteran Affairs saying the office would be vacated by Friday, Sept. 8 according to Ali Knabe, vice chancellor for Student Services.
“It’s not typical that a VSO certifying death and medical benefits exists on a campus,” Knabe said.
The decision to move Crary’s office appears complicated by the involvement of multiple agencies and pass-through funding from a service foundation. While these deliberations are covered in red tape, what has been made clear is that Crary’s management of UAF’s veterans resource office proved divisive.
An overtly conspicuous figure in any room he happens to occupy, Crary barks a greeting into the phone every time he picks it up and ends his emails with a signature which reads, “A ‘Veteran’ — whether active duty, discharged, retired, or reserve — is someone who, at one point in life, wrote a blank check made payable to ‘The United States of America,’ for an amount of ‘up to, and including their life.’”
Crary assumed the position of VSO following the February 2014 departure of Phil Hokenson, a former Army officer with the 1-25th Infantry Stryker Brigade Combat Team. In December of 2011 the university opened a veterans resource office on the ground floor of the Eielson Building, staffed by a veterans service officer under the employment of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.
“The purpose of the office was to be kind of a one stop shop for veterans on campus,” Hokenson says. “So they could come and kind of understand their educational benefits, but also get a quick overview of the VA healthcare system, how that works in the state of Alaska, and also file a disability claim, you know, any kind of VA programs.”
Originally, the office in the Eielson Building was opened up for veteran students as a way to prepare for an upcoming law which would require all universities to employ a VSO on every UA campus, according to Hokenson.
“[The law] never passed, but in anticipation of it the vice chancellor kind of started prepping,” says Hokenson, who continued to explain that the university at the time wanted to reach out to veterans.
Hokenson left the Army in September 2011. He heard about the plan to move a VSO on campus, approached Vice Chancellor Mike Sfraga, and by December the office opened with Hokenson as acting VSO.
“It was basically just a handshake,” he said.
Hokenson says the news of the office move took him not entirely by surprise because he was aware of the nature of the arrangement. When Hokenson left the office, he recommended that the university “put pen to paper” to establish parameters between the office and the university since it was not being run by UAF staff. To his knowledge this never happened.
Vice Chancellor Kari Burrell, UAF’s chief-of-staff, stated concerns about Crary’s office arose “because student veterans were not comfortable and were leaving.”
Zachary Sherman, a 34-year-old veteran at UAF, is one student who was left feeling alienated by Crary’s ascension to the Eielson office. Sherman served in the U.S. Army for six years, worked as a police officer, and served as junior vice-president of the Student Veterans of UAF club. But some months following Hokenson’s departure, Sherman stopped using the office and eventually ended his involvement with the student veterans club.
“The entire feeling of that office changed completely and actually drove me away from using the office at all,” Sherman says. He contends that there was a shift in priorities. “It went from helping to empower people to helping people find excuses.”
MaCherie Dunbar, a UAF alumna with a degree in communication, also expressed displeasure with Crary’s office demeanor. Dunbar, 34, served in the Air Force for 12 years as a heavy equipment operator. She finished deploying in 2010 and started going to school, at which point she noticed the divide between student veterans and civilian students.
“It’s world experience,” Dunbar said. “It’s world knowledge, you know. And that sets the tone for difference in how we handle our discussions, and the difference in the way we see things, answer questions, and even respond to normal everyday stimuli.”
During her time at UAF, Dunbar was president of the Student Veterans of UAF club. She worked to help with Veterans Day Memorial Roll Call, outreach on campus and communicated with faculty about class material, post-traumatic stress disorder, and traumatic brain injury. Ultimately, she was president for two years before graduating.
Dunbar said she couldn’t speak for every student veteran and that students could have felt alienated for a number of reasons. She said that while Crary and Hokenson offered the same resources, she personally didn’t feel welcomed as a female veteran after Hokenson’s departure.
“I think the climate was shifting. The people that were coming in were not as amenable to having a woman in charge and didn’t like the way that I did things and it just made things really tough,” she said, regarding her reasons to separate herself from the veterans center on campus once her term as president was complete.
Since graduating, Dunbar is still focused on the veteran community. She aims to open her own resource center in Fairbanks.
To address the veteran resource situation on campus, UAF administrators have created a tentatively-titled “Military Outreach” position at the university for the recruitment, retention, and advising of active-military and veteran students. The position has not yet been posted.
The position is in the works, according Vice Chancellor Knabe, as it was authorized during the time between Chancellor Dana Thomas leaving UAF and Chancellor Daniel White taking over this semester. The university is presently collaborating with the Community and Technical College to create the position.
There was a “Military and Veterans Enrollment Initiative” meeting scheduled in the Chancellor’s conference room for 1 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 11. The meeting involves representatives of departments varying from the Chancellor’s Office to the Office of Grants & Contracts Administration, to the College of Liberal Arts, to the Community and Technical College, among others. The meeting agenda indicates parties will be deciding how to allocate university resources geared towards military and veteran enrollment.
“We are also in the process of creating a veteran coordinator position, so that would be a university position that would staff a veterans center,” continued Knabe.
“They would help with everything we are doing currently in the old VSO office,” she said, referring to the interdepartmental staffers currently assisting student veterans out of that office.
The emphasis of that position would be aiding student veterans with their education benefits.
“There are lots of people on campus that know bits and pieces of that process. There’s so many different military and veteran benefits and they all come with different stipulations,” she said. “We feel like it would be hugely beneficial to have somebody really be able to advise in that capacity, so kind of a comprehensive advisor with a direct connection with education certification through financial aid, and then also, ideally, this person would be a veteran.”
“Hopefully we can secure space so there can be some tutoring possibilities through our federal work/studies students,” Knabe continued. “So just a more comprehensive service hub.”