Veterans still fighting battle in school, Abilene

Two students enlisted in the military–one enlisted to escape his hometown, while the other was following in the footsteps of his family members who served in the military. However, they now fight the battle of transitioning into a civilian lifestyle.

David Sirchia and Rowdy McElfresh are two student veterans, who said they find little help at home when it comes to the understanding between veterans and civilians. Sirchia served in the military for four years and was deployed once to Afghanistan and was in the ground unit with the Marine Corps. McElfresh served for five years and remained in Hawaii as a hospital corpsman with the Navy.

“ACU has on their website that they are a veteran-friendly school, but they don’t actually meet any of the requirements for being veteran friendly,” said McElfresh, a junior business management major from Abilene. “Outside of Hannah Vance, the Veteran Affairs rep, which is a required position–ACU only has one person assigned to us.”

ACU is on the Military Friendly list for 2018. For a school to be labeled as Military Friendly, they must have at least a 50 percent or above retention rate, graduation rate and job placement rate, and must not have a veteran complaint rate over five percent per academic year. A veteran complaint rate is the number of veteran students who file an official complaint against the school with the VA.

McElfresh said after he left the forces, he originally was not interested in attending school but enrolled because he can no longer work a physically taxing job. Sirchia said he knew after leaving he would want to attend a university, and his fiancé is the reason for his enrollment.

Both students said they are offered little support academically, and formed an organization to bring awareness on campus to prompt a positive change in how they are treated.

“I want to bring more people here,” Sirchia said. “I want to show that we are here to support them, and to have us would bring a good balance to everything that goes on at a university.”

The group is also meant to create a community space for people to feel accepted and to voice the problems they are facing as students.

“A huge issue with student veterans is suicide,” McElfresh said. “The statistics are pretty staggering. So by just having a group of like-minded people with shared experiences, we could knock down that number here.”

Liz Brown, director of Wildcat Central and New Student Orientation, said via email that Wildcat Central has a financial aid counselor specifically assigned to the population of veterans.

“We realize the university needs more supports in place for our veterans, but we have attempted to begin filling this void by making sure they have access to financial aid information that is specific to their situations, as well as support related to their unique challenges,” Brown said via email.

In contrast, the city of Abilene is addressing the concerns of veterans and their needs and pursuing ways to help. In a press conference, Mayor Anthony Williams issued a challenge to end veteran homeless in Abilene within the next 100 days.

John Meier, the supportive services for veteran families program director, is at the forefront of ending veteran homelessness with the West Texas Council of Governments. Through a case management program, they create a stability plan for the veteran which includes provided temporary or permanent housing and employment.

Meier was a homeless veteran assisted through the program in 2014 and now offers the same help to people who are in the same situation he was in.

“I look at it as a new lease on life because you’re in a crisis,” Meier said. “You have either lost housing or been without housing for a while so it’s an extremely low point in life. It’s extremely rewarding being able to connect with them and assist them.”

Meier said since Jan. 1, the program has helped 84 veterans in the city of Abilene, but the program covers a total of 19 counties.

Abilene is also addressing the mental health of veterans with the Military Veteran Peer Network program, a federally funded. The program offers veterans a space to come together through social programs such as the ArtHeals initiative, where they work with the Center of Contemporary Arts, veterans use art as an outlet of expression.

Glen McGraw the MVPN Coordinator directs veterans to the proper organization to help them when they are struggling mentally or need help understanding their military benefits and how to utilize the VA to get help.

“A lot of the things that they don’t realize when they leave is camaraderie,” McGraw said. “Within six months, they realize something is missing and they don’t know how to replace it.”

McGraw said he can personally relate to the people he helps because he is a veteran who has anxiety and depression from a brain injury he received. After therapy, he was able to overcome his mental illness, leading him to advocate for veterans to seek help as he did.

Other organizations that are helping address veteran needs in Abilene include the Veterans Affairs office, the Texans Veterans commission and the Airmen and Family Readiness Center.

Tressie Taylor, the manager of the Airman and Family Readiness Center said they educate and help military personnel in a year-long program while they are still in the force. The program then assists military personnel in finding a job or enrolling in a university after they no longer serve.

McGraw said student veterans have difficulty in college because of the behavioral differences from their classmates and a stark difference from the world they were conditioned to live in with the military.

“It’s such a big deal,” McGraw said. “It’s chaos, and they want consistency, they want people that understand them.”

We reached out to Hannah Vance, the VA representative on campus to speak on behalf of ACU and involvement with veteran students and any possible programs the school has in place, but she was not able to comment.

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