Dressed in sharp, dashing spring clothing, four former soldiers celebrated the completion of the CU Boulder Veterans Alumni Club’s mentorship program that helps CU student veterans toward their career of choice while also helping them stand out among their competition. The celebration marked a unique kind of graduation for the students — the April 22 event was the first graduation of the club’s Veterans Mentorship and Transition Program.
Often, those who have a military background find that while college is still challenging, the discipline and commitment they learned in the military along with a supportive veteran community is helpful.
“For day-to-day life, the entire engineering program was a challenge just because I jumped right into it,” said Navy veteran and program graduate Josiah Achenbach. “But thankfully, the military did prepare me for that kind of stuff because you create a never-give-up, never-quit attitude even though you’re not getting the grades that you want.”
The CU Veterans Alumni Club, run by former Marine Corps captain Rex Laceby, helps CU veterans make two kinds of transitions: adapting to civilian life as a college student and preparing to join the work force after graduation.
“I wanted to establish a veterans alumni club a couple of years ago, and I established that on my own in order to serve the largest veteran population — those of the alums,” Laceby said.
Boulder is home to more than 16,000 veterans, 3,000 of which attend CU. One of the issues in getting veterans to join the club is that many don’t it exists, according to Julann Andresen, director for events and outreach at the CU Alumni Center.
The club offers career services like interview skills critiques and resume-building through community service efforts like working for Habitat for Humanity.
“It doesn’t seem to be a challenge once they know about it and they understand what it offers them,” Andresen said.
The club also focuses on resources that will help veterans prepare themselves to be successful in the business world. Its program puts veterans in one-on-one sessions with professionals in their respective careers to help them know what they can look for, negotiate salaries, polish up their resumes and do extensive networking.
It’s a great resource for vets like Achenbach, who served as a cryptologic technician in the Navy for eight years. For him, undergraduate mechanical engineering classes were a challenge. But for a 27-year-old young man who worked around the world, transitioning back into civilian life was the hardest part.
“Some of my classes were entry-level, but I’m definitely dealing with kids who are fresh out of high school [at CU], and obviously the things we’d done in our lives are completely different,” Achenbach said. “When you go from getting worried about, worst-case scenario, getting shot down or something like that on an airplane, and here where someone’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, I only got a 90 on a homework assignment’ … you’re like, ‘That’s your biggest problem right now?’”
Another graduate of the program, former Marine Corps servicewoman Jenn Calaway attests to a similar dilemma.
“The biggest challenge was my anger for some reason. I went [overseas] and saw Afghan children who will never experience anything close to the luxuries in my life, and then to campus where kids are losing their minds over an iPhone. The priorities were so different, and that was really hard for me to get used to.”
Although college is a privilege, some take it for granted. For veterans, college is a different kind of transitioning phase: from the highly structured, disciplined life on a military base to the less structured life of the civilian world.
Sometimes, veterans may have a hard time relating to those who matriculated directly into college out of high school. The contrast in lifestyles can create conflict, but often it causes isolationism among veterans.
“Sometimes, they’re disenfranchised by their teachers if the teachers are just having a bunch of undisciplined students … they’ll lose respect for the teachers sometimes or they may feel separated from the student population,” Laceby said. “This program is [different] from a lot of the other things because we don’t want to just retain the students here at CU Boulder, but we want to be here for the folks who understand that when they leave here, they’re going to need a degree. They can’t just be here on vet island — they need to engage with the students.”
Additionally, some veterans end up returning with problems that go beyond isolationism.
Mental health disorders like PTSD and traumatic brain injuries are often neglected or dealt with improperly, mainly because some disorders are stigmatized. The social stigma is based on the idea that getting treatment is beneath any honorable soldier. That can make the stress of being in the civilian world vastly more complicated.
“I’ll teach companies that are trying to do a better job hiring and retaining vets because a lot of their folks have a lot of these issues,” Laceby said. “Sometimes it creates conflict — some vets have anger issues or depression or visible wounds. I’ve got shrapnel on my face. Some folks have missing limbs. With some, bright sounds or different things might trigger some mild form of PTSD.”
Veterans that are returning from war zones often see their inner turmoil unfold, and manifest itself into real, deadly violence.
Brandon Simmons, the Marines veteran who brandished a machete at the CU Champions Center before being shot by law enforcement, had returned from the Middle East, according to a friend, after being discharged in May 2016. The incident created an unwanted image for the veteran community after his death was publicized.
“I work here at CU; I think I it may have freaked a few people out knowing he was a marine, and [with people thinking] ‘What if Rex were to do something?’” Laceby said. “The story wasn’t something-year-old did this, it was ‘Former marine does this,’ and that’s the lens that everyone who’s been in the service has to have.”
Some vets even keep a low profile as a result, not revealing their backgrounds until they’ve lived in the area for several years.
“At first, I would not bring up my veteran profile for a long time because I knew people would be like, ‘Oh you were in the military? That means you support war!’ and that’s not the case,” Calaway said.
More troubling for veterans is the fact that most are not aware of the benefits and services that that are available to them.
In 2003, General Mark Graham, a renowned military figure in the realm of mental health issues, learned that his son, an ROTC cadet a the University of Kentucky, committed suicide. Having struggled with depression since his youth, Kevin Graham had stopped taking Prozac, fearing he would be kicked out of his ROTC program at UK. One of his instructors did not attend his funeral, believing that his suicide was an act of weakness.
Later in 2007, Graham was transferred to Fort Carson in El Paso County, Colorado, where he learned a dark truth about the base’s mental health treatment views. At one point during Graham’s command at Fort Carson, he had a troubling conversation with a colonel at the base.
“We can’t fix every soldier, and neither can you. Everyone in life beyond babies, the insane, and the demented/mentally retarded have to be held accountable for what they do in life,” the colonel in charge of mental health services at Fort Carson said to Graham.
Graham eventually revamped the mental health services at Fort Carson, working to give the soldiers the help they needed “before it was too late.”
While these mental issues are not the CU program’s sole focus, veterans services workers don’t downplay the severity of them, either.
“I don’t ask each and every individual student that comes in, ‘Do you have these types of problems?’ but we make those resources available to them and any veteran I meet in the community,” said Damon Vine, veterans services coordinator at the University of Denver.
Laceby emphasized that struggling happens, but personal growth and achievement can still happen despite such hardships.
“There’s post-traumatic stress, and there’s post-traumatic growth. And I think most of the vets here have that experience, and it makes them better qualified for a lot of jobs than a lot of the students,” Laceby said.
The ultimate goal of the club is to create a strong community that brings them together and gets them through college. And their experience in the military hasn’t been a huge setback for all returning soldiers.
The discipline, for example, seems to be working well for the vets. Calaway also attributes much of her growth and new personality to the extra-curricular activity she engaged in while at CU, like Phoenix Activesport and Salute Colorado.
Calaway is now running her own business in event design, and she’s confident that post-graduate life will be bright.
“I’m not a 9-to-5 person. I really like the flexibility and the ability to transfer my military training into an entrepreneurial lifestyle,” she said.
For graduates like Calaway and Achenbach, the future is looking good. Laceby, with eyes full of ambition and compassion, hopes to make more veterans aware of the club, and to get them acquainted with a mentor who will help them with future job prospects.
“I think we gain about at least one or two members every week, and I think the more events that we do like this and the Habitat for Humanity projects we do, and the homeless shelter visits we do — [it] gives people more awareness. And it shows the community that we’re not just a bunch of crazy Marines. We’re great folks who want to help out our fellow citizens, that’s why we enlisted or got commissioned.”
Contact CU Independent Assistant Visuals Editor Jesse Hughes at firstname.lastname@example.org.