Service began with a commitment to country for almost 400 Virginia Tech who are veterans, National Guard members, Reserve members, or on active duty. Now their service continues in a different capacity by giving back to the university and community.
“Service is what we’ve been doing. Most of us did it for four years,” said Adam Lisa, president of Veterans@VT, a chapter of Student Veterans of America.
Lisa of Northeast, Md., a junior majoring in mechanical engineering, served four years in the Marine Corps, including a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan. “We enjoy serving others, especially if it is for a veteran. There are vets out there that need help, and it’s hard for them to ask.”
Veterans@VT formed in 2010 as a way to connect student veterans. Its members use service projects and social gatherings to form friendships and assimilate back into civilian life.
“I was 26 when I came back, and I’m in a freshman English class. It’s difficult to connect with that large of an age and experience gap,” Lisa said. “The first time I met with Veterans@VT, we took a tubing trip down the river. We didn’t have to work to become friends. The camaraderie came back immediately.”
A Marine Corps-issued cargo strap holding down a cooler created an instant friendship between Lisa and Daniel Pierce-Parra of Bellevue, Neb., a sophomore majoring in political science who spent five years in the Marine Corps. Pierce-Parra was tubing with his roommates when he saw the strap on Lisa’s cooler and immediately knew he was a Marine.
“From there, I started hanging out with Veterans@VT,” Pierce-Parra said. “When you get out of the service, you fall into whatever else makes you feel good because you lost a very big part of yourself. I am not going to force this group on anyone. But I believe it’s inherently good for veterans.”
Club members want to get more student veterans involved in their group, as well as faculty, staff, alumni, and community members. “We’ve been working on getting our name out there so other veterans know about us and what we do,” said Calum Newcomb of Blacksburg, Va., a sophomore majoring in environmental policy and planning and treasurer/secretary of Veterans@VT.
Virginia Tech has a rich military history from its beginning with the Corps of Cadets. Through the years, the campus has also welcomed veterans as students, faculty, and staff.
In recent years, veterans have received a renewed focus as many who enlisted after the 9/11 attacks complete their service commitments and use their educational benefits.
The influx prompted the university to increase support channels for veterans. The Office of Veterans Services opened in May 2012 as the first-stop for veterans and their dependents, handling paperwork for the certification of benefits with the Veterans Administration and ensuring student veterans are connected to resources to help with their transition to academic expectations and civilian life.
“We want to serve those who served us,” said Karen Eley Sanders, associate vice provost for undergraduate academic affairs and administrator of the university’s student veteran initiative. “Beyond resources here on campus, we partner with outside organizations that can fulfill other needs, such as the Virginia Wounded Warrior Program, which has been a steadfast supporter of our student veterans.”
Virginia Tech has been recognized as a top military-friendly school the past two years, among the top 20 percent of higher education institutions for supporting military-connected students and their families.
“Being the premiere state school you have to strive for that,” Pierce-Parra said. “When veterans look to spend their educational benefits, we want Virginia Tech to be that school.”
The leadership of Veterans@VT is looking for ways to partner with university leadership to continue enhancing veterans’ services.
The group hopes to find a permanent “home base” on campus. “We are looking to establish a place for us — not to bounce around from year to year — to build a legacy,” Lisa said.
“If we do come forward with any proposals for the advancement of veterans’ services on campus, we do it with the utmost humility and respect for the administration. They have been nothing but fantastic towards us,” Pierce-Parra said.
For the past two years, President Charles W. Steger has invited the group to his box in Lane Stadium for the first home football game. Free tickets also were given to veterans for the Military Appreciation Game. “We are less than 1 percent of the student population — a tiny percentage of the total student population — so the fact that they recognized us was appreciated,” Lisa said.
Veterans@VT helped Homes for our Troops build a house in Pulaski, Va., for Marine Staff Sgt. Jeremy Austin, who lost both legs in Afghanistan. The key-turning ceremony was Oct. 5, 2013.
Each Veterans Day, Veterans@VT serves its community through a project intended to raise awareness and honor those lost. Members gather at the Pylons to read the names of those killed while supporting Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Operation New Dawn. In 2012, students read more than 6,600 names, which took more than five hours.
Virginia Tech Magazine highlighted efforts at the university to help veterans transition from military service to the classroom in summer 2012.
Virginia Tech provides ongoing assistance to veterans returning to the workforce through a one-of-a-kind program that pairs retired veterans with unemployed veterans.