A Positive Place for Veterans

May 21, 2013

It was a Thursday evening when Cody Nicholls got the call from his platoon sergeant.

“He said we’re being called up.”

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After six months as a gunner and another six months in charge of a tactical company operations center at Camp Al-Taqaddum located between Fallujah and Ramadi, his life would never be the same. When finally got out, he became a staff sergeant in the army reserves.

“I remember when I first came back, I thought to myself, ‘Wow, I’ve got to buy groceries. How do I go about buying groceries? How do I go about cooking food?’”

Finding one’s way back into civilian life was no easy task for Nicholls. Natasha Crawford, who just graduated with a degree in nutritional sciences, echoes a similar experience. She deployed twice to Kuwait and Iraq during the initial ground war in 2003. She returned to school at the UA after nine years in the army. When she arrived here, she found the Veterans Education and Transition Services office before classes even started.

“Having others you can identify with, others who have walked in those same shoes you walked in, is tremendous,” she says. “Coming back to college, I wasn’t the typical freshman. I had bills, I have a family.”

Listening to Our Vets

Serving as a soldier poses grand challenges that test human mettle. Likewise, making the transition from life as a soldier back to life as a civilian presents its own battles.

To help these soldiers, the UA created the V.E.T.S Center.

“The key is to really sit down and listen to our student veterans,” says Nicholls, who today is a graduate student in higher education, as well as the director of the UA Veterans Initiative.

According to Crawford, that opportunity – to speak and be heard – has been indispensable to the vet community.

“They listened to when we told them what we needed to help us succeed and to help us graduate,” she says.

An Innovative Program for Success

One of the innovations that have arisen out of addressing such needs has been the development of an entire curriculum called Supporting Education for Returning Veterans. The program focuses directly on increasing retention and graduation rates for this unique student population.

In these classes, student veterans learn everything from identifying skills to creating optimal learning situations to how to transfer military leadership skills to civilian life.

Michael Marks, lead psychologist with the Tucson VA and UA assistant clinical professor, helped start the program.

“I come from the Vietnam generation,” he says. “I saw this Siddharthian river of guys who couldn’t go to school, couldn’t make it, and I said, ‘I’ll be darned if I’m going to have this happen to the next generation of veterans.’”

Today, according to Marks, colleges and universities across the country are looking to emulate the UA model.

A Positive Place for Veterans

Ricardo Pereyda was deployed to the Middle East and served in Iraq and Kuwait. He received his Honorable Discharge from the Army in 2009. Today, he is the president of the UA chapter of the Student Veterans of America (SVA), which was recognized in 2010 as chapter of the year by the national organization.

He just graduated with a BS from the School of Government and Public Policy with and emphasis in criminal justice and a minor in military science and leadership.

“It’s no wonder that the University of Arizona is leading the nation in the advocacy for our veterans, for the services and resources provided to our veterans, the commitment for our veterans,” he says. “We’re out there constantly asking ourselves, what needs to be addressed?”

The SVA takes part in community service work throughout Tucson. In 2012 and thus far in 2013, they have carried out 20 community service/charity projects in Tucson and on campus.  Examples of the group's service projects include partnering with the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, , The Ronald Ronald McDonald House, and Casa Maria Soup Kitchen. And for charity, they have partnered with Rally Point/La Frontera to cloth and care for Tucson's homeless veteran population, worked with the UAPD and Marine Corps for the annual Toys for Tots christmas drive, and collaborated with the Reid Park Zoo during their annual ZOOcson Feast for the Beasts.

“We want to feel we’re making a positive impact,” says Pereyda. “Because we’ve seen such terrible things, we want to make the world a better place.”

The UA gratefully acknowledges the support of Congressman Raúl Grijalva in the creation of our top-tier veterans' programs.

Visit the groundbreaking Veterans Education and Transition Services (V.E.T.S) program.