Steve Buyer, a former Indiana congressman and Gulf War veteran, once said, “The young patriots now returning from war in Iraq and Afghanistan and other deployments worldwide are joining the ranks of veterans to whom America owes an immense debt of gratitude.” While repaying the full debt for their military service may be an impossible goal, Bellarmine University has reached out for many years to its student veterans on campus, and a new club and peer-support group intend to further ease that transition in the post-9/11 world.
Members of Bellarmine’s 1954 Pioneer Class will tell you that 1950 was a tough year for the founders to start a male-only college. That class lost almost half of its members to the draft during the Korean War (1950-53), with full-time enrollment dipping from 115 to 65. Humanizing those cold statistics, Bellarmine historian Wade Hall told the story of John Hackel ’57, a Korean War veteran who lost an eye during the infamous Battle of Heartbreak Ridge. Each day, Hackel would pick up and take home classmate Gerald Geiser ’57, who used a wheelchair due to polio. (Hall, Hackel and Geiser are all now deceased.)
In his Bellarmine University history High Upon a Hill, Hall wrote, “Bellarmine has also participated in various federal student loan programs, beginning with the G.I. Bill of Rights for World War II veterans and later the Korean and Vietnam veterans. In the summer of 1956, 91 Korean veterans were enrolled at Bellarmine.” Furthermore, “special midyear freshman classes were formed for returning Korean War veterans in late January of 1953.”
Years later, Major General (Ret.) Edward W. Tonini ’68, who would become the highest ranking military leader to graduate from Bellarmine, was a student on campus during the Vietnam War era, when that conflict sparked intense opposition and controversy on campus. Tonini, who also later served as Kentucky’s Adjutant General, did not remember any military or veteran presence on campus at that time, for which he cited “the very liberal bent in opposition to the war.”
It is certain, though, that some Bellarmine alumni and students volunteered for military service or were drafted during that conflict, including two students killed in action: John Phillip Matlock in 1968 and Thomas Gaines Turner in 1969. Both are listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.
Today, veterans returning to school often face challenges that are financial, physical, psychological, academic or a combination. But a supportive trend for military service has emerged in the post-9/11 era, exemplified by a Veterans Day message in 2014 when the late BU President Joseph J. McGowan observed, “Bellarmine students have willingly served our country since the university’s very beginning, when the Korean War interrupted or ended the educations of many in the Pioneer Class, and they continue to serve today; the number of students using a Veterans Affair benefit has increased every semester over the past five years.”
Since early 2015, Dr. Richard P. “Rick” Brown, a former U.S. Air Force staff sergeant, has served as special assistant for Veterans and Military Services at BU. “When I took over this job, I had one instruction—to make Bellarmine more veteran- and military-friendly,” he said. In fulfilling his charge to raise the school’s awareness of veterans, he credited countless other faculty and staff for their continual, unequivocal support. Many student veterans, meanwhile, echoed Dr. Brown’s opinion that as veterans, “there is nothing special about us. We just have a different history which we carry with us.”
There are approximately 60 declared veterans on campus, but the exact number is not known. In discussing why it is difficult to track the number, Dr. Brown explained that “veterans who are not using benefits—and there are many—must self-identify. This is not required. Every university has this issue.”
This process also affects how alumni veterans are counted. When asked how many Bellarmine alumni are veterans of military service, Alumni Director Peter Kremer responded, “We have a code in our system for a lot of things, such as baseball team players or Honors Program participants, but there has never been a code for veterans. I would like to change that so we can better track graduate-veterans in the future.”
One club that has been vital to establishing a veteran-friendly campus is the BU Student Veteran Association (BUSVA), founded in the fall of 2015 by Neil Brandon Goldstein ’16 and Dr. Brown.
Goldstein, 27, of Vine Grove, Ky., majored in exercise science after serving six years of active duty in the U.S. Navy as a fleet Marine Force hospital corpsman. “Bellarmine is providing new and innovative programs and approaches to veterans seeking a college education,” he said. “Since we’ve begun, we have had nothing but support from Bellarmine and its staff.”
Many of the declared veterans on campus are active in BUSVA, which appears to be thriving. “Some vets feel less secure on campus, and a bit uncertain every time they walk into a classroom, because their military ‘team’ no longer has their back,” Dr. Brown said. “BUSVA gives them a safe place to go.”
Ashley Hite, 24, a junior secondary English major from South Hill, Va., who is now serving in the Army Reserves after almost six years of active duty as an avionic mechanic, said that it is especially important for female veterans to have a place to go. “Our challenges include the traditional obstacles, and then some,” she said. “For example, sometimes we are not even recognized as veterans because we are females.”
Lt. Col. Kenny Lynn Harryman ’93, who joined the U.S. Air Force after graduating with a nursing degree and received a Bronze Star for meritorious service in Afghanistan, applauded the formation of the BUSVA. “It is a way for veterans to relate to other veterans who have many things in common and to feel like they are part of the university, since they are not your conventional college students.” She retired recently as a Deputy Hospital Commander.
The current president of the Student Veteran Association is Andrew Hagerman, a junior psychology major from Lewisville, Texas, who served 13 years in the Army, including eight deployments, for a total of 72 months, in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa. Hagerman, who is passionate about serving his peers, wants to become a clinical counselor. “My ultimate goal is to work with veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury,” he said. “The smaller setting of BU offered the perfect atmosphere for me to not only transition from the military, but to receive the best education possible.”
In its 2016 Best Colleges rankings, one prominent national news magazine rated Bellarmine among the top-ranked Southern universities that participate in federal initiatives helping veterans and active-duty service members pay for their degrees. Ashley Hite agreed with that ranking and commented, “It is important that BU recognizes the Yellow Ribbon Program and fully supports the student veterans club. I firmly believe that Dr. Brown has roped the moon for veterans at BU—he truly cares about the integration of veterans and a smooth transition into college, mainly because he understands us.”
The Yellow Ribbon Program, a post-9/11 federal law that allows veterans to attend private schools costing more than the state tuition cap, is one of two initiatives that have raised the reputation of Bellarmine among veterans. Based on certain service requirements, some veterans can be qualified as “100% Yellow Ribbon,” which entitles them to significant tuition benefits; in addition, BU places no limit on the number of such veterans who may participate.
The other important initiative is Peer Advisors for Veteran Education (PAVE), a peer support program in which a stipend is paid to a student veteran already on campus to connect with and mentor an incoming student veteran. Originated by the University of Michigan, PAVE is a select program currently available on only 12 campuses; this fall, the program will be rolled out at 30 additional schools, including Bellarmine. “Our induction of PAVE is unlike any other,” Goldstein said, “and will provide veteran-for-veteran support for newly-entering veteran students.”
Earlier this year, Bellarmine, BUSVA and Athena’s Sisters, a Louisville-based organization for military women, co-sponsored three programs about veterans transitioning from military to college and then into the workforce. The “Warrior to Scholar to Leader” seminars consisted of unscripted conversations among veterans about the issues, surprises and difficulties they faced when leaving active service. “These sessions were open to the university community,” Dr. Brown said, “because it was important to raise awareness of the challenges that veterans face. Some professors, students and others just don’t ‘get it,’ although they may be well-meaning and good-intentioned.”
With a colorful backdrop of service flags borrowed from a local American Legion Post, the final seminar in the series focused on the skills that veterans bring to the workplace. A total of 21 companies and organizations actively participated in the dialogue that was generated and met with interested student veterans in a job fair that followed. Abby Eberenz Nauert ’11, representing Norton Healthcare Human Resources, later remarked, “Bellarmine is definitely tapping into an elite workforce that is underused.”
In summarizing the many benefits that mature veterans bring to the college atmosphere, General Tonini observed, “The life experiences of service people put higher education in a much better perspective for them.” As a corollary, student veterans Goldstein, Hagerman and Hite each stressed the importance of programs that promote communication and understanding of veterans who are transitioning to civilian life on campus. Dr. Brown concluded: “We are all grateful that Bellarmine has developed a deep commitment to raising awareness, facilitating encouragement and fostering support of our nation’s warriors as they return home to university after serving their country.”
If you are a Bellarmine graduate and a veteran, the Alumni Office would love to hear from you. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 502.272.8333 with your name and year of graduation.
Harry Rothgerber Jr. ’69