Monday, May 25, 2009

Veterans Are More Than A Campus Number
by Dr. Tom Jackson, Jr., ACPA President 2009-10

This year (and this Memorial Day) was a little more unusual for me. Strangely this year a few more people "thanked" me for my service to the country. It felt odd for many reasons. Part of the reason it felt odd was simply I am not accustomed to being thanked for things too often lately. Vice Presidents (for Student Affairs) are not often thanked since we are often the ones thanking others. Many times the ACPA President only gets thanked when they are actually leaving office. As an adult child I don't recall thanking my Dad for too many things other than the car keys and money, but that was after a lot of effort and promises on my part. Today, as a parent the "thank yous" are not that frequent either. Let’s not even talk about being a spouse (G).

I guess being thanked for my military service, or being thanked for anything just seems odd. It is also strange since my service was not particularly memorable or earth shattering. Like many that have served their country in the military, we put in our time and feel honored to have done so. The truth is, however, I carry no amazing medals and you will not read about me in any history book.

We all love our country. We certainly love the perceived benefits of being an American Citizen and for some of us, seeing the U.S. flag still brings tears to our eyes. Having said this, what are many of us willing to do to preserve our way of life, to protect our freedoms, to defend the flag? I stated in my first presidential remarks that "veterans" are the most patriotic people one will ever meet. Think about it for just a moment. Veterans are those that put actions above words. They are those that stepped forward and said, "I will do it."

It was 1978 when I "signed" on the bottom line. It took months for the Coast Guard recruiter to sell me, and to his credit, he stayed with me. I had enormous pride when I signed. Several months later I took even greater pride when I finished nine weeks of "boot camp." I was a better person leaving "boot." I was certainly more fit, but I also was much smarter. I spent a lot of time in the classroom in all kinds of training. I left basic training for more school. Seven months later I graduated prepared to do all kinds of things, primarily search and rescue. Seven months! That was classroom training eight hours every day. Imagine if college were like that?!

As a small boat engineer I was the guy that made sure the boat was running properly. I also was the guy that put out fires and did whatever was needed on a small three-person search and rescue crew. That is right, if you were the unlucky one to have a boat stall, or a dock fire it might have been someone like me showing up in a small 41' utility boat. Today, these same "Coasties" must also deal with pirates and drugs. I feel fortunate I served when I did.

I don't think I was ever a great Coastie. I mean I had many successes, but I was a civilian at heart. I was a reservist so 28 days out of the month I was all things "non-military." For two days each month I suited up and did my service, knowing that at anytime I could be called up, required, told that I must drop everything else I was doing to serve my country full-time. I willingly did that since that was the deal and that was my perceived duty as a U.S. citizen. I felt honored and privileged to do it.

I still maintain contact with a very dear friend of mine from those days. We both went through basic training together and were roommates in Virginia during those seven months of schooling. He graduated first. I was seventh. He really knew his stuff and I benefited from it I am sure. I also have pictures from that time. I didn't say this earlier but I was also part of a slightly more elite parade and drill company for awhile. This meant that we traveled a little, spun rifles, marched in fancy formations, worked parades, carried the flag, and assisted at funerals. Those funerals were very humbling because we were honoring the fallen that had served longed before us. It also meant lots more work and training.

I can't imagine being in war like our some of our veterans today. Seriously. I mean I recall stopping boats late at night, not knowing what crazy things could happen out on the water. However, this was done in the U.S. and with some backup.

Our veterans today are very diverse. While we often see those serving in Iraq or Afghanistan on TV during a patrol or conflict, we often do not see the many in support of all these efforts. The technicians, the physicians, the educators, the repair personnel, and so many other trades all support our way of life. When we fly commercially it might be the air traffic controller that once served. The training they received in the military has been turned into a lucrative career. My point, it is not just what is seen on TV, although the pride may still be the same.

Whether one was in battle or "behind the lines" providing for those in battle, there is pride and honor in serving one's country. The flag means everything to a veteran. It often is second only to those brothers and sisters that one has served beside.

Our veterans returning to campus are more than a number. They are an extremely distinguished group of people. They are full of pride. They are extremely well trained. They are focused. They value service, loyalty, honor, patriotism, integrity, and intelligence. They have aspirations and represent the absolute best in humankind. They have willingly given of themselves for a much greater purpose at the potential loss of their own life. They are not a means for increased enrollment. In fact, one could make a case for the opposite. They have earned enrollment and represent the best in students, leadership, and civic duty. They are the people we want to have college degrees and the ones we want balancing the public good against individual self-interest.

ACPA, like other associations, will find a place for practitioners serving veterans on our campuses. We will find a place because we have found places for many other practitioners serving students in other capacities. It is the right thing to do. The challenge for ACPA, and the Student Affairs membership across the globe, is to build upon the best practices occurring on campuses today. These students (veterans) simply seek a chance. This chance they have earned, and because of how they earned it, we should give them every opportunity to succeed in this different and cumbersome educational process we call higher education. Give the veteran one solid year, one where they can trust and work with others like themselves, and society will get a college graduate a few years later. Just one solid and supportive year. Simplifying the admission process, totally revamping the transfer of credit process (don't get me started on this one), improving advising, and developing a "veteran friendly" campus is just some of what it will take to create the type of campus deserving of a veteran. Interestingly, these efforts will also improve campus life for all students.

I am a very proud veteran of the United States Coast Guard Reserve, Army National Guard, Texas State Guard, and Indiana Guard Reserve. On a day (Memorial Day) where we honor those many that have paid the ultimate price, I take great pride not in the thanks I may receive from others but my continued service to my country and the service men and women seeking college degrees. This is also one additional way you may serve your country today. Weeeee!

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