NDSU Post 400 member Tristan Fox mans a table in North Dakota State University's student union. He and fellow post members distributed information to students passing by. (Photo by Amy C. Elliott)

Campus post bonds volunteerism with camaraderie

With around 700 student veterans enrolled, North Dakota State University in Fargo, N.D., has always been flush with veterans outreach organizations and clubs. What was missing among them was a veterans group that is as focused on volunteerism and community outreach as it is with providing veterans at the school a place to congregate.

Calie Craddock, a 22-year-old Guardsman from West Fargo, N.D., started NDSU Post 400 on campus to fill that void. When Craddock returned from a deployment last August, she was approached by Legionnaires from other parts of the state about the prospects of starting a post based at the school, where she is a student and an assistant veteran representative for VA.

It was an idea that had previously been floated to her when she was in-country in Kuwait. Stateside, she realized a Legion post could fill a niche at her school.

“We already have a quite a bit of veterans outreach organizations on campus, and the post seemed to be a natural transition into more of a community-based activism program,” Craddock said. “We have had past veterans organizations on campus that haven’t had the clout necessary. What’s awesome about the Legion is... it’s a tried-and-true organization that can support us while we pursue endeavors.”

Founded last fall, NDSU Post 400 now has about 40 members from the school’s students, alumni and faculty. Craddock, the post commander, has stayed true to her original vision, organizing the post’s involvement in community-oriented activities like charity races, volunteering on campus and focus groups intended to identify issues that the school’s veterans face.

Future projects include co-hosting a fundraiser dinner and event to help pay medical bills for a local Guardsman who has developed a brain tumor. Craddock and her members plan to host the event, in coordination with a local nonprofit organization, at nearby Fargo Post 2, located in the city’s downtown area.

Post 2, made up mostly of Vietnam and World War II veterans, has been crucial to Post 400’s development, serving as a mentor and sister post to Post 400. To repay the goodwill, Post 400 plans to lend its able-bodied, younger members to repair Post 2’s roof.

“The post commander is an Iraq vet, a little older than us, but he came from a similar conflict and knows where we are headed,” Craddock said. “They have an aging post and it needs some roof work. Our post intends on volunteering and helping them.”

This volunteerism perfectly complements the usual role that a Legion post plays on a college campus. Like the Legion posts founded at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and Hodges University in Naples, Fla., Post 400 offers a rallying point for the school’s student veterans and rekindles the bond that they enjoyed with their compatriots in the military.

“A lot of people on campus join fraternities or sororities," said Megan Tiegs, a member of Post 400 and student at NDSU. "The military is kind of like a fraternity or sorority, but you are with brothers and sisters. It really interested me as a college student, to know that there are other people on campus going through some of the same things as me, and that could identify having come from being on duty.”

Before Nathan Paler, an active reservist and student, joined Post 400, he noticed plenty of student veterans walking around his campus, he just never interacted with many of them. He says joining Post 400 and spending time around other members has not only allowed him to identify other veterans at his school, it’s helped him regain a “sense of belonging” that he knew in the military.

“I’m a little less on edge than I was before I joined,” Paler said. “Just walking across campus, you can tell who is in the military. Now that I know a lot more faces, I feel a lot more comfortable.”

The idea for a post on NDSU’s campus came from a speech given by Tahnee Sweep, a student and member of Post 400, to Legionnaires in the state. Sweep, whose father is the district’s commander, spoke at a district meeting and stressed the need for the Legion to serve veterans who are heading to colleges in large quantities, as conflicts overseas draw down and education benefits become more generous.

“A lot of people have the perception that the Legion is something where you go, you sit in a post, and everyone is in their 90s," Sweep said. "That’s just not the case."

Sweep says the “campus post” can serve the same function that Legion posts did years ago in the wake of World War II, when servicemembers flocked to schools and universities on the original GI Bill.

“For so many younger veterans, we need somewhere to go where we can talk to other people about Iraq or Afghanistan or other places we’ve been deployed, like the World War II vets had when they came home,” Sweep said.

But the post won’t be limited to current students. Craddock envisions Post 400 becoming an alumni club of sorts that can offer professional connections and even job services to current and former students who have become members.

“This post can be a great networking portal for students,” she said. “We have all these amazing backgrounds and experiences. We’re going to make sure we encompass that and take care of each other.”

The goal of taking care of one another embodies the Legion’s organizational mantra of veterans serving veterans and ultimately expresses what Craddock says is the foundation of NDSU Post 400.

“We want to be somewhere where (student veterans) can relate, tell stories of their good old days in uniform, or get help on how to get through the next day,” she said. “Reintegration can be really difficult for a lot of people, and we are hoping to make that a friendlier transition – especially on campus, where there isn't a lot of us, but there is enough."