Warriors On Campus

Oversized camouflaged backpacks cover the floor of the UWM Center for Military and Veteran students. It’s crowded, loud and filled to capacity.  Dave Tucek sits in his office chair and looks over the state legislation he helped create with Sen. Robert Cowles to give veterans and military students priority registration and ensured in-state tuition.

As Tucek scrolls down his browser page, a veteran opens the door and inquires why he can’t register for classes yet.

Tucek has only a year left at UWM but says “I may not need priority registration, but to know that when I’m gone other people will get it who need it-that’s cool.”

Priority registration for veterans is one of the eight guidelines from First Lady Michelle Obama’s Got Your Six Program UWM is currently failing to meet.

With 1300 military or veteran students currently enrolled, UWM has the largest population in the state.  As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan  end, even more veterans are changing their mission from defending America to succeeding in college.

Priority registration is given to honors students, students with disabilities and student athletes but is not available to military or veteran students.

Military and veteran students often have schedules similar to student athletes: weekend training which demands they travel and annual training that means missing classes for a week.

With 1300 military or veteran students currently enrolled, UWM has the largest population in the state.

Nationwide, universities and colleges have only until 2016 to improve  veteran support, or risk losing substantial funding under President Obama’s Executive Order. “Establishing  Principles of Excellence for Educational Institutions Serving Service Members, Veterans, Spouses and Other Family Members.”

Dave Tucek served two tours in Iraq as a Blackhawk crew chief, and is now working tirelessly to make UWM more veteran friendly through his work at UWM’s Military and Veteran Resource Center.

The center opened in November in 2012 and has been filled with students seeking academic support and camaraderie ever since.

Although the center is actively serving a large population, UWM has not yet named a director; only a job description has been written.

“We don’t have enough space. I bet a lot of people don’t come in here because we don’t have room for them,” says  Lia Coryell, an army veteran and student worker at Military and Veteran Resource Center.

Many students hear about the center through word-of-mouth, because it isn’t listed on UWM’s website.

A curious veteran or reservist student looking to connect with like-minded students may search “veteran” or “military” on UWM’s website but only find informational pages on benefits.

The center is located in the UWM Union, but there are few signs pointing the way. Coryell is working to make the center easier to find and is petitioning to be included on the union signage.

When Tucek first began college, it was this lack of visibility and veterans self-identifying that lead him to wonder if there were only a handful of veterans on campus.

Campus Challenges

Nationwide, many colleges give veterans credit for their engineering, medical and other relevant training. Maximum credit for military experience is another guideline of the Got Your Six Program that UWM is currently not satisfying.

Within the UW system, UW-Green Bay grants veterans fourteen credits for military experience. UW-Madison grants six. UWM only grants four credits; one for first-aid and two for sport and recreation.

“I guess the thinking is, you were in the military so you must have been in shape at one point in your life,” surmises Tucek.

“Each one of the schools and colleges has their own policies on how they will evaluate a credit for military experience,” says Lisa Ori, UWM’s Veterans Benefits and Admissions Specialist.

Ori serves a dual role: she is an academic advisor for non-degree seeking veteran or reservist students and a military benefits specialists.

Enrolled combat medics with experience identifying body parts are in stuck Anatomy 101 classes poking needles in oranges. Army rangers and special forces service members with overseas experience are required to take cultural immersion classes.

“Sgt. 1st Class Joe Braun, head of UWM’s ROTC, would have received 36 college credits for his military experience from Cardinal Stritch,” says Coryell. “That’s adult friendly. That’s vet friendly. That’s real life.

However, UWM would only allot Braun the standard four credits.

As the Spring 2013 semester began, several veterans were administratively dropped from all classes because they were incorrectly charged the 200 dollar administrative fee- another failure of the Got Your Six Program.

Coryell walked with the veteran students to the financial aid office and resolved the problem.

The Post 9/11 GI Bill requires veterans to receive instate tuition. But in the labyrinth of paperwork and procedures, veterans slip through the cracks.

Navy veteran and several year Wisconsin resident Jason Gray  is currently paying out-of-state tuition.

Often older and with more years of working under their belt, veterans sometimes feel different from their civilian classmates.

Military culture has a clear chain of command that dictates respect for commanding officers; to a veteran or reservist, classmates on Facebook or texting during class can be seen as disrespectful.

Gray says the hardest thing about returning to campus life has not been paperwork or paying out of state tuition, but rather the gap between him and other students.

“I was in charge of multi-million dollar equipment on a billion dollar warship. Here, you have 18 year olds getting drunk every night and having mommy and daddy paying for everything,” says Gray.

Often older and with more years of working under their belt, veterans can often feel different from their civilian classmates.

Tom Mitchell reaches into his military backpack and unveils his transcript.

He served in the Air Force as a photographer of missile facilities and launches, space shuttle facilities and nuclear warheads.“My work was was well-documented in Airforce times, seen by senate sub-committees, the pentagon all the way up to the President’s office,” says Mitchell.

His transcript documents his extensive training in photojournalism, scientific documentation, color photography and advanced principles of photography and processing film.

Mitchell’s training began in 1981 at a joint military photography school and he continued to serve at a California Air Force Base.

UWM solely granted Mitchell the standard sport and recreation classes for his basic training and only transferred his fundamental photography training.

“They did not translate the bulk of everything I learned and did, which made me a success in the Air Force,” says Mitchell.

Mitchell says the effect is two fold: veterans are not recognized for their field experience and UWM misses out on veteran and military student leadership.

“Veterans could be like a second TA,” says Mitchell as he reflects on the years of training and experience involved in defending America.

Mitchell works with Tucek and Coryell through the Student Veterans of America chapter at UWM and is aiming to increase non-veteran participation at the Center and through their charitable programs.

On May 23, Mitchell is leading where civilian students will place flags besides the tombstones of fallen service members.

Mitchell says veterans “really need that support in the community.”

Challenges In the Classroom

Civilian students often think of lecture halls as big rooms filled with fellow classmates enrolled in another required class. To a veteran student, Coryell says this environment present challenges for individuals trained to be on alert in crowded places. Veterans often won’t sit with their backs to an exit.

“One in four of us [veterans] have hearing loss…but we won’t sit in the front of the class,” says Coryell.

Professors with vocal anti-war opinions present different challenges.

On the first day of classes, Tucek had a professor announce to the class he was a conscious objector to Vietnam, evaded the draft and objected to all wars.

After the Professor’s announcement, Tucek says had a harder time being involved in class; the professor denied service in the military whereas Tucek volunteered and served two tours.

“When you say something like ‘women are stupid and they aren’t as smart as men and they can’t do stuff men can do’ all the women in that class are going to be really turned off to listening to you,” says Tucek.

Coryell says experiences like that make veterans feel “discounted.”

“Last semester we had two guys were in English classes and on the syllabus it said they could not write about war or their military history because the professor felt it wasn’t relevant to the student population,” recounts Coryell.

Tucek counsels other veterans to not let it bother them: “You served the country to let people do what they want to do.”

Although there is paperwork, procedures and negative opinions of the military to overcome, Tucek says he remains motivated by the younger veterans.

The Military and Veteran Student Center recently was approved for having red, white and blue honor cords for veterans; another goal to honor and make visible veterans’ commitments.

“I’m about to graduate but I want to help the people behind me; I just want to leave it in better shape than when I came,” says Tucek.