Students who serve: Veteran organization creates community on campus

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April 4, 2011

10:44 PM

In 2007, Carlos Payan ’12 was deployed to Afghanistan to work as force protection security for Bagram Air Field. During his deployment, an F-15 strike eagle plane crashed, and 12 soldiers died in combat due to lack of air support.

“I saw the pararescue medics come back — their uniforms were bloody,” Payan said. “I can’t forget the look on their faces. They had been through misery.”

Every year, a few students enter the College of William and Mary with a slightly different experience than the average freshmen. The Veterans Society, along with the rest of the Tribe, are there to welcome them.

After he attended a Veteran’s Day event on campus, Lance Zaal ’09, M.B.A. ’12 met with friends and other former service members to play a round of pool at the Corner Pocket in New Town. That night the idea for their association was born, and the Veterans Society was founded to act as a resource for incoming veterans. Zaal served as president for the first two years.

Initially, the society worked on fundraising, and in the first three years it raised $75,000 from private donors working through the College’s fundraising network. Now the society has taken on a looser 501(c)(19), making it a tax exempt organization. Additionally, it functions as a hybrid between a student and an independent organization, allowing the society to maintain a degree of autonomy.

“I think it works because it’s not like other groups that are very organized and keep a strict schedule,” Zaal said. “I think that’s a recipe for failure.”

Now the society functions as a social network for veterans at the College and in the community, and as a way to foster friendship among veterans.

“It’s nice to know there are other people who can relate to you,” Kaitlin Burke ’11 said.

Some veterans on campus, like Burke, still serve in the reserves, taking off one weekend each month to train. The military can call them at any time to deploy overseas.

“It’s stressful to see the deployment lists coming out, and hoping you’re not on it, because I want to finish school,” Burke said.

Burke, 26, spent five years on active duty in the Navy as a hospital corpsman, providing medical care for the Navy and Marine Corps.

Now in the reserves, she spends her one weekend a month at Sewell’s Point Naval Base in Norfolk working in the immunization department. She helps conduct yearly health assessments and provides medical preparation for those who are expected to soon be deployed. The department also conducts screenings for mental health pre- and post-deployment.

Burke hopes to turn her experience in the field into a career, using her major in neuroscience to help protect against and prevent brain injuries sustained in combat. Many veterans feel that their time in the service now helps them in the classroom.

“I have connections to the real world,” Heather Murphy ’13 said. “I know Benzene is not just a molecule, it’s a carcinogen.”

A biology and environmental science major, Murphy spent five years as a bio-environmental engineering technician in the Air Force. Stationed at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, Nevada, she conducted chemical evaluations at the base to ensure that airmen weren’t harmed by some of the dangerous chemicals and materials they were exposed to on the job.

Karl Larson, ’12 was accepted to American University his senior year of high school, but decided to turn the offer down

“I wasn’t mature enough yet,” Larson said. “I wouldn’t have graduated in four years.”

Instead, Larson decided to enlist in the Marine Corps. He spent four years as a rifleman in the Marines, deploying twice to Iraq and once to Djibouti. While in Iraq he encountered insurgents equipped with improvised explosive devices.

“We had to clear out a couple of houses controlled by the bad guys,” Larson said.

His experiences in the Marines have helped him through college.

“I’m not just older, I have more experience,” he said. “If I fail a test, I’m not going to break down and cry. I’ve been through worse.”

For Payan, his experience in the Air Force and in Afghanistan has helped him in his Wartime and Ethics class, taught in the religious studies department at the College.

“I’ve seen certain things that allow me to have a deeper view than most other people,” Payan said.

While there are advantages to the added experience, adjusting to life as a student and a civilian can be difficult.

“Just being a transfer student in general is a little rougher than being a freshman,” Larson said.

While the military often provides programs to help with the transition, these are focused more at older military people who are retiring after a full career.

Additionally, veterans at the College have faced issues with financial aid in the past, often in regard to their eligibility for both the Gateway program and the G.I. Bill.

“No one would tell you what your options were,” Zaal said.

Zaal and the Veterans Society worked with the administration to act as a resource for incoming veterans.
Overall, members of the Veterans Society say the College offers a welcoming campus.

“You worry that you’re not going to be accepted as a veteran,” Burke said. “But people are very accommodating.”

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