Saluting Our Campus Veterans

Saluting Our Campus Veterans

by President P. George Benson

The cofC Community has a long, proud tradition of military service that spans every branch of the U.S. Armed Forces and every major war in which our country has fought – from the American Revolution to Afghanistan and Iraq.

As we look ahead to Veteran’s Day on November 12, I want to devote this column to our many students, faculty, staff and alumni who have honorably and selflessly served our country.

The College’s history of military service dates back to the establishment of our nation and the founding of our institution. In fact, the College’s first president, Bishop Robert Smith, served in the Revolutionary War. (Scholars disagree as to whether Smith served as a foot soldier, a chaplain, as both, or in some other capacity.)

When classes resumed after the war, they were held in the President’s House and then an old military barracks located on what is today the Cistern Yard. The barracks served as the classroom building until the construction of Randolph Hall.

During the Civil War, many of the College’s students and some of its faculty fought for the Confederacy. At the College’s commencement exercises on March 26, 1861, degrees were conferred in absentia on four members of the senior class who withdrew from school to fight in the war.

The College made similar allowances for seniors when the United States entered World War I in 1917. All seniors volunteering for military duty were given full academic credit for their final year.

In those days, our campus could be mistaken for Charleston’s military college, The Citadel, which was then located near present-day Marion Square. College of Charleston students who were 18 and older wore uniforms of the Students’ Army Training Corps, took courses on military tactics and reported to bugle calls for reveille and retreat under the College’s canopy of oaks, according to A History of the College of Charleston by J.H. Easterby.

Cistern Yard, 1917

World War II also had a significant impact on the look and feel of the College, particularly after the war. As millions of veterans returned home from World War II, the College, like most American higher education institutions of the time, saw a surge in veteran enrollments. This was due in large part to the establishment of the GI Bill in 1944. In subsequent decades, the GI Bill would also enable veterans of the wars in Vietnam and Korea to pursue a college education.

Sadly, many members of our College family never returned home from their tours of duty. The names of 23 alumni and former students killed in wars during the 20th century are memorialized on a plaque in Alumni Hall. The plaque was erected by our Alumni Association in 1995.

One name on that plaque is Charleston native George Detwiler Burges ’38. An accomplished student-athlete in swimming and basketball, Burges served as a B-17 pilot during World War II and participated in numerous key bombing campaigns in the European theater. Burges was killed in action over Italy when his plane collided with another aircraft.

Fortunately, the story of Burges’ life and military service is documented and preserved in the Addlestone Library. Burges’ family donated the collection of personal papers, letters, military records, photographs and other items to the College in 2002. The collection includes Burges’ service pistol and leather holster as well as his military medals, such as the Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross.

There are countless other examples of members of the College of Charleston community serving with distinction in our military. You will encounter veterans at virtually every level and in every area of our organization. A number of our faculty and staff have served or still serve in the military. Their contributions to our country are recognized through a variety of campus events every year.

With the large number of veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan in recent months, colleges and universities around the country are once again seeing increases in veteran enrollments.

Don Griggs, director of the Office of Financial Assistance and Veterans Affairs, says his office has seen a slight increase in veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and is keeping a close eye on enrollment trends to ensure that our veteran services keep pace with any significant growth.

One major change that Griggs has seen in our student veteran population since he began working at the College in 1986 is the type of student who now qualifies for veteran’s benefits. The establishment of the Post-9/11 GI Bill in 2009 significantly expanded education benefits for veterans and their dependents. As a result, some of the students on our campus receiving veteran’s benefits are not themselves veterans, but the children of veterans.

For fall 2012, about 300 students are attending the College through one of several education-assistance programs administered by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The job of making sure these students receive their education benefits in full and on time falls to veterans affairs coordinator Scott Woolum. Woolum is one of the only people on campus who has regular contact with large numbers of our student veterans. For that reason, his duties often go beyond administrative support. He understands military jargon and knows how to navigate the VA’s bureaucracy. Our veterans trust him and often stop by his office just to chat.

Student veteran Jacob Jameson says he has been pleased with the support he has received on campus – from veterans affairs, from his professors, from student advisers and his classmates: “It’s just been a really positive experience. Everybody has bent over backwards to help me.”

Jameson, 27, served for four years in the U.S. Navy as an operations specialist on the USS Nicholas, a guided-missile frigate home ported in Norfolk, Va. A junior and business administration major, Jameson plans to start a small business after College selling his own brand of beverage.

John Starzyk is among our newest alumni veterans. He graduated in May with a bachelor’s in communication. Like many veteran students, Starzyk, 28, says he initially struggled with the transition from military life to campus life. But his professors and classmates made him feel welcome and a part of the campus community. “Because I was a little older, I could relate to the professors,” he says. “They knew where I was coming from.”

Starzyk, who grew up in the Low-country before moving with his family to California, was a senior in high school when the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred. The attacks, coupled with the fact that his father had been a career military officer, steered Starzyk to the U.S. Air Force. He served for six years as a vehicle operator and deployed twice to war zones in the Middle East. He is currently serving in the Air Force Reserves and working as a supply specialist at the Medical University of South Carolina while he pursues a career in print journalism.

Our faculty say veterans add tremendous value and diversity to the College. Many student veterans have traveled around the world, served in combat and are very disciplined about studying and being prepared for class.

Communication professor Vince Benigni has had several veterans in his classes. He says student veterans tend to be detail-oriented, sit in the front of class and ask interesting questions. “They provide a rich perspective,” he says, “and their classmates have shown great appreciation for having a veteran in the classroom.”

The College is also making sure that our student veterans are supported outside the classroom. Our staff in Counseling and Substance Abuse Services have extensive training and experience dealing with many of the issues that are common among veterans transitioning out of the military: post-traumatic stress disorder, relationship problems, substance abuse and anger management.

Counseling and Substance Abuse Services is uniquely suited to meet the needs of our veteran students. The office’s director, Frank Budd, is a retired colonel in the U.S. Air Force and is board certified in psychology counseling. Budd and his staff also have access to a network of health professionals, including resources at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston. In addition to a part-time psychiatrist, the office has the services of two psychiatry residents who spend one day a week at the College through a special arrangement with the Medical University of South Carolina.

Budd says the transition to campus life can be hard for some veterans, particularly if they have been in combat. “Their life experiences are so far beyond those of a typical 18-year-old student,” Budd says. “It’s hard to come home from serving in the military or combat and just flip a switch, especially after repeated combat tours, as is the norm for our military since 9/11. So we are here to help our veterans make that transition.”

In an effort to create another mechanism for our student veterans to engage with the College community and assimilate to campus life, Budd’s office sponsored and supported the start-up of the Student Veterans Association. The group organizes regular meetings, brings guest speakers to campus and hosts social and civic events. The association has an active leadership board and continues to look for ways to reach out to our student veterans.

The association’s current president is Maung Ko Ko, a senior business administration major and a chemical operations specialist in the Army National Guard. He is currently working on an initiative to connect the association’s members with other student organizations and clubs on campus. Ko Ko says he is happy to see the College supporting its veterans and hopes that veteran services can be expanded to meet the needs of future generations of veterans: “We are different and older than regular students, but we are still students.”

I ask all members of the College community to join with me this Veteran’s Day and every day in saluting our veterans and the men and women currently serving in the Armed Forces. Thank you for your service to our country!