'Everybody needs a place to go'

Temperatures barely cracked 50, and steady winds made it feel even colder than that. But that didn’t stop University of Akron Post 808 Legionnaires and their families from having a presence at the school’s military and veterans tailgate event before the Zips’ Oct. 31 football game with Central Michigan.

The Legionnaires mingled with members of the National Guard and other veterans organizations from the university, grilling hot dogs and enjoying other food in a parking lot less than 100 yards from InfoCision Stadium. Events such as the tailgate are important, said 30-year-old Post 808 Second Vice Commander Patricia Stofiel.

“Veterans like to help other veterans,” said Stofiel, a grad student and Army National Guard staff sergeant. “That’s the whole purpose of our Post 808: To make sure we’re networking with others, to make sure we’re reaching out to our community. (The tailgate event) is just something we can do to celebrate so much that we’ve accomplished: our establishment of the post, the constant activity, helping other veterans within the area. This is a way we can bring our families out and something we can do to make our group a little more close-knit.”

Stofiel said events like the tailgate help raise the visibility of Post 808. “Others are noticing what we’re doing and want to become a member of our group,” she said. “Everyone needs a place to go. We want to provide that for them. We want to provide a safe, quiet learning environment … and a place that they can go that they know is reliable.”

Chartered in July 2014, Post 808 already has grown to approximately 160 members. The rapid growth may surprise some, but it wasn’t the least bit of shock to Department of Ohio Internal Affairs Director Jason Graven, who joined Post 808 while he was helping charter it.

While a student at the University of Toledo, Graven saw the need for a student veterans organizations. He served as president of the Student Veterans of America chapter on campus there. “I saw the movement,” he said. “This generation wants to be involved, but they want to be involved in a way that makes sense to them. That’s why you don’t see this generation going to a lot of the brick-and-mortar posts already established. This generation needs a new avenue so they can focus on the issues that this generation’s veterans need.”

Post 808 First Vice Commander Ashley Gorbulja, 22, said the post’s presence on campus fills a critical need for the student veteran population.

“Having something like this on campus (makes it able) for you to walk into a room and immediately identify with everyone in the room,” said Gorbulja, an Army National Guard sergeant and military policeman currently majoring in exercise science. “It doesn’t matter what era of veteran you are. Having someone there to support you is absolutely vital. As we’re going through all these monumental steps (in college), having someone right beside you is crucial. With the post being here, it’s a foundation of peace.”

Post 808 Adjutant Jay Musson, a University of Akron graduate who now serves on the university foundation’s board of directors and is the president of the Musson Foundation, came up with the idea of chartering a post on his alma mater’s campus – and didn’t realize it would take off so quickly.

“I had no clue what I was getting into – not at all,” Musson said. “It’s really been a collaborative effort. We couldn’t have done it without the university.”

Looking to the future, Musson said the post wants to increase its employment assistance efforts for veterans on campus. “Everybody wants to hire veterans for any number of good reasons,” Musson said. “We’re going to have a program where big employers come to each membership meeting and talk to veterans there. I think we’re going to be the go-to place to find (recent veteran graduates).”

But the post also serves to mentor future American Legion leaders, Department of Ohio Commander James Campbell said. Campbell made it a point to come to the tailgate event and spent much of the time talking with Post 808 members.

“(Post) 808 is a success story, and they’re a success story for other campuses to emulate,” Campbell said. “As we look to the future of The American Legion … who will fight for veterans’ rights in the future? It is our young veterans of today, our 9/11 veterans, who have to pick up that fight. This success story here is a great, great testament to our young veterans of today. They step forward and say, ‘We will do this.’”

During the first quarter of the football game, Gorbulja, Campbell and Musson were honored during the Bryant Heating and Cooling True Hero's of the Game segment. Campbell also presented a Gold Brigade membership award to Gorbulja because Post 808 brought in more than 50 new members during the membership year, and the Department of Ohio Recruiter of the Year Award was given to Musson.

Many of those members have become friends with Gorbulja and will remain friends with her for a long time. “They say friends you make in college you’ll have forever,” Gorbulja said. “It’s the same thing in the military. You bring both of those together, and I think that’s where we’re at.”