Ignatian Valor: SLU’s veteran community

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Ignatian Valor: SLU’s veteran community

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On the morning of Wednesday, Nov. 11, at the periphery of the Clock Tower, leaders of SLU’s Student Veterans Association (VSA) distributed yellow ribbons to commemorate Veterans Day and to raise awareness of the university’s student veterans. Dustin Hesskamp, vice president of VSA, said that they gave out 500 ribbons within a few hours. “It seems like everyone’s been supporting us, [are] pretty excited about Veterans Day and showing respect,” he said. Hesskamp, a senior in the School of Business, served in the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2007 and 2012.

The other servicemen that joined Hesskamp at the Clock Tower currently pursue studies in the School of Education, Parks College and the School of Social Work. They are among roughly 150 veterans in undergraduate programs, although, Hesskamp said, “that’s only counting people that are using their benefits, so we probably have quite a few more than that that aren’t using benefits or haven’t self-identified as a veteran per se.” SLU’s veteran students encompass all branches of the U.S. military: Coast Guard, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Army and National Guard. Many receive financial support from the GI Bill and the Yellow Ribbon program – the GI Bill offsets costs not covered by the Yellow Ribbon Program.

The VSA, Hesskamp said, “gives us a chance to meet and get together and address any issues.” It hopes to solidify its presence with a forthcoming Veterans Commons in Wuller Hall.

Dr. Mona Hicks, Dean of Students and Associate Vice President for Student Development, co-chairs the Student Veterans Success Task Force, which acts as a liaison between SLU’s veterans and administration. Hicks explained that the goal of the Commons is to “foster a seamless transition from military life to civilian college life.” It will give veterans, active military and dependents access to on- and off-campus resources. “Having a place where you feel connection to other folks is what we’re trying to establish,” said Hicks. “A community within the community.” She says that the community includes 303 servicemen and women and their dependents.

The Task Force, a multidisciplinary committee, of which eight are veterans, spearheads projects including increasing Yellow Ribbon Scholarship recipients to 75; implementing priority registration status for certified military-affiliated students; developing a strategic enrollment vision for 2018 to include a military enrollment between five and ten percent; and naming retired Coast Guard Commander Katherine Weathers, J.D., as the “primary point-of-contact for student veterans and military-affiliated students.”

“We really started to build some momentum … So it feels like we’re kind of turning a positive corner” said Hicks.

At a luncheon that day, Retired Army Brigadier General E. Tracy Beckette, Civilian Assistant to the Secretary of the Army for Eastern Missouri and a SLU alumni (B.A. 1969, MBA 1972) presented the Seven Seals ,Award to Dr. Pestello and David Hakanson. The award recognizes “significant individual or organizational achievement, initiative or support that promotes and supports the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve mission.” Beckette said that “[President Pestello] is very supportive of the fact that we have a veterans outreach. And that’s important as we help them transition from their military roles to the civilian side, and as they go through those experiences, they’re going to have a different outlook or value system perhaps, and so it helps them to adjust to college life.”

This spring, Hakanson and other IT staff allowed National Guardsman Mark Ziegler, an Ohio National Guardsman stationed in Kuwait, to watch his daughter, Ashely, receive her degree at precommencement.

Fourth-year Jesuit scholastic Sean Hagerty joined the Army at 22 and was in his senior year at Fordham University when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks occurred. “I joined the army out of a sense of duty,” he said, “and a sense of service to my country.” In 2006, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant and stationed at Fort Wainwright in Alaska as part of the 1st Brigade, 21st Infantry Division. Two years later, he was deployed to Diyala province in Iraq, where he served second in command for an infantry company of around 170 soldiers. There, he participated in patrols several times a week and met with local Iraqi leaders. He served as an officer until 2010.

Hagerty stands out for his status as a Jesuit veteran. “As far as Jesuit life and military life, they have some interesting intersections, while at the same time being very, very different … For me, the military was of course very formative … I enjoyed being a soldier very much. But it’s a different calling to be a Jesuit, and while they’re both good servicemen, it’s a very different lifestyle.”

He referenced Ignatius of Loyola’s military origins; indeed, a rogue cannonball dealt a fateful blow to Ignatius’ leg, an injury whose ensuing complications indirectly led to the Jesuits’ formation. “Ignatius, before he entered the Jesuits, was a soldier himself,” he said, “and so when you read some of Ignatius’ work you see some of that language … of the importance of being a knight. You see that kind of shift a little bit into the spirituality.”

Hagerty emphasizes the epidemic of veteran suicide, citing a statistic that 22 veterans a day commit suicide, and that since 1999, the U.S. has lost 5,000 soldiers in combat, whereas over 100,000 have committed suicide. “A lot of young veterans get lost in the system, a lot of veterans end up homeless … That’s why I’m involved in the community, because it’s my community as a veteran,” he said. “It is a marginalized community in many ways. We don’t have a lot of assets on campus. The school’s been very good trying to build that with us. The administration actually has been very kind to us. But we’re still in our infancy … and so we’re trying to make the community more established.”