New SVA chapter unites, empowers veteran community at Lee

New SVA chapter unites, empowers veteran community at Lee

Photo: Tessa Voccola

The Lee University Bateman team has founded a new chapter of Student Veterans of America (SVA) on Lee's campus as part of the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) Bateman Case Study Competition.

Ashley Akeson, senior Bateman team member, said the team was excited to learn SVA was their client. Their desire to win the competition became less important as they gained passion for providing a community for veterans and GI bill recipients.

'We think this matters,' Akeson said. 'These people who served our country and had this really strong community [overseas] can't fit in with anybody because they've experienced so much more than any of us have. They just can't relate to their peers anymore. We want them to feel [wanted and appreciated].'

In the one-month time frame allotted for the competition, the Bateman team hosted multiple events in order to raise awareness for the club and support veterans, including a community Camo Run 5k, Green Zone Training session for students, faculty and community members and G.I. Bills and Pie ' a celebration of the official launch of the chapter.

The chapter has been approved by Lee, and is currently in approval process with the national SVA organization.

The Bateman team hopes to create a lounge space for veterans to gather as a community and establish a 'Respect the Flag Initiative' in the future, which will make SVA responsible for American flag care and maintenance on campus.

Lee's Veterans Office will help facilitate communication between SVA chapter members and new student veterans, dissemination of information pertaining to the VA and benefits, and provide advising to any veteran that seeks it, Nathan Nichols, Lee's veterans affairs representative said.

'It is my hope that the new SVA chapter will be an opportunity for our student veterans to form bonds with one another as a body of individuals with shared experiences and like minds,' Nichols said. 'I also hope the new SVS chapter will empower our veterans to be successful during their time as students at Lee.'

First-year student Dustin Gunnoe served four years in the Marines and two years active duty before enrolling at Lee.

When he returned from the Marine Corp in 2011, Gunnoe's first goal was to get his college education. He enrolled at ETSU, where he spent his days struggling to manage schoolwork and a growing drinking problem.

'It was what we all did in the Marines ' drink,' Gunnoe said. 'I thought, 'This isn't a problem', but it was. I didn't want to admit it. My pride, our [Marine] pride will not let you. Your arm's cut off and you're like 'I don't need help'.'

Gunnoe eventually dropped out of school and returned to his home in Cleveland. When he couldn't find work, he moved to Murfreesboro and joined a Knoxville reserve unit, hoping to find community. He was disappointed the reserves didn't have the same element of camaraderie that he had experienced in active duty.

Discouraged, Gunnoe left the reserves and started working security at a Nashville bar. At one point, he was living out of his truck, which he parked in front of Gold's gym. Each day he would drive 45 minutes to work, get home at 4 a.m., sleep in his car, and start again. On days off he would drink because it was free.

On New Year's he received a DUI for drinking and driving. This was the last straw for Gunnoe, who was already in debt for failing classes on his G.I. bill, requiring him to pay back the money he had received for college.

'Now I really want[ed] to kill myself,' Gunnoe said. 'It just felt like everything was coming at me [at] 1,000 miles an hour and I felt helpless.'

After this, Gunnoe finally sought help. He called his mom, who told him, 'Just come to church.' There, he met veterans who helped him file his disability claim and throw out the DUI case. When they asked Gunnoe what he wanted to do, he replied, 'I want to go back to school.'

Gunnoe enrolled at Lee this past fall semester in order to get closer to God.

'I was kind of skeptical at first, but everyone's been super nice and friendly,' Gunnoe said. 'I'm meeting a lot more people than I've ever met in any other college.'

Gunnoe decided to join the SVA chapter to be involved in a positive veteran community, but also to help veterans and reserve members who struggle with similar things he did.

'I want them to think [they] can get through it,' Gunnoe said. 'There's a big hopelessness there. God was a big part in ' getting me out.'

As Gunnoe completes his first year at Lee, veteran Christopher Kelly, retired from the army for almost 23 years, prepares to graduate.

Kelly, who had spent his last six years in the army as an instructor over classes as large as 200 people, said it was difficult returning to school and sitting on the other side of the podium.

'I was the low man on the pole,' Kelly said. 'I realized that my experience meant nothing and [that] I was a lot more comfortable on the teaching side than I was a student, because I've been out of school for so long.'

Kelly not only had to adjust to student life, but civilian life as well. After returning from one of his seven deployments, Kelly noticed habits he was keeping up from the war. He drove in the middle of the road under bridges, taking up both lanes, as bridges were frequent bombing locations. At restaurants, Kelly always must face the door.

'When you're on a mission, you're constantly looking around,' Kelly said. 'When you come back that habit continues. You have to try not to analyze every person, every situation.'

Originally wanted to start an SVA chapter at Lee himself, Kelly was pleased to find out he could partner with the Bateman team. His first concern was that many American flags on campus were not displayed properly, either falling down, being left in the rain, or not lit properly at night.

'It's our national symbol,' Kelly said. 'It's a respect thing ... Either don't do it or do it right.'

Kelly also hopes the new chapter will help veterans and recipients use their G.I. bill, provide them a place to gather and aid them in transitioning to both civilian life and student life.

'I hope it gives them some normalcy so it's not a total culture shock when they come back,' Kelly said. 'It's a big difference coming back from what you're used to. [SVA] will help them transfer back to the real world.'

There are also students at Lee, such as Grace Weisenburg, who are currently serving in the military. Weisenburg enrolled at Lee in 2011, but left to enlist in 2013. After 3 years, she returned to Lee and now serves in the guard as part of a military police unit.

Weisenburg said it was difficult transitioning back from a harsh military environment to Lee.

'[The military] is a really hard environment to be in, especially if you're a Christian,' Weisenburg said. 'I don't personally drink, I don't smoke, I don't like a lot of profanity, but that's just culture in the military ... I had to make sure I didn't fall into that. It's just a really abrupt change.'

There were times in class where students would speak out negatively about the military, unaware Weisenburg was a part of it, making comments such as, 'I don't know why you would go overseas and risk your life for a country.'

'I think a lot of people don't realize it's a sacrifice and it's really hard to come back and get in the routine, a normal schedule,' Weisenburg said.

Weisenburg said she was surprised when she returned and looked at other colleges, that Lee lacked programs for veterans.

'Lee's really about service, and I thought that veterans, [since] they really served, would be a bit more appreciated,' Weisenburg said.

Weisenburg hopes the new SVA chapter will close this gap, and believes the chapter will attract more veteran students to Lee, providing them with a supportive Christian community.

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