Historic journey continues for Student Veterans of America

Historic journey continues for Student Veterans of America

Fifteen years have passed since Student Veterans of America was born. Soon into SVA’s journey – about the same time the Post 9/11 GI Bill was introduced and immediately faced skeptics and detractors – the American Legion National Headquarters in Washington, D.C., provided free office space for the fledgling group. There was a certain ideological symmetry between the two organizations. The brand-new SVA dreamed of nothing less than the same opportunities the Legion’s founders wanted when they came home from World War I – the ability to effectively advocate on behalf of each other, share a bond few others could understand and convert military experiences into meaningful futures to strengthen the nation they pledged their lives to defend.

Fast-forward to Jan. 5-7, 2023. Some 3,000 members of SVA and their supporters gathered on the Disney campus in Orlando for the organization’s 15th National Conference (NatCon) to celebrate progress that’s been made against that founding vision, tackle issues veterans of the nation’s longest war now face and to inspire each other, as proud members of a population that represents less than 1% of America.

“Over this last year, in 2022, I’ve had an opportunity to think about what 2023 means, as we move into the 15th anniversary of Student Veterans of America,” SVA President and CEO Jared Lyon told the crowd at last Thursday’s opening session. “And honestly, anniversaries are a time to reflect on how far we’ve come and, more importantly, where we are headed.”

Since its inception, SVA has grown from about two dozen chapters to nearly 1,600 throughout the United States and beyond. It serves some 750,000 veterans on campuses in every state, U.S. territories and three foreign countries. Its sponsors include such industrial giants as Raytheon, Boeing, Comcast and Microsoft.

The American Legion and SVA frequently testify before Congress in support of like-minded legislation, and dozens of SVA chapters receive support from American Legion posts in their communities. “The American Legion is honored to count many SVA members among our ranks, and vice versa,” American Legion National Vice Commander Patricia Harris told the crowd at Saturday’s closing ceremony. “Together, we stand shoulder-to-shoulder to advance the interests of student veterans.”

Those interests were on full display in Orlando.

The 15th SVA NatCon featured more than 100 breakout sessions that followed five sponsored tracks – chapter management; diversity, equity and inclusion; health and well-being; personal development; and veterans service organizations, government and policy.

The American Legion’s Tango Alpha Lima podcast crew set up shop in the SVA Campus exhibit hall and did live interviews while visitors of the Legion selfie stand popped photos with their smartphones and shared them on social media. Attendees also collected materials and information on the Legion’s Be the One initiative to reduce veteran suicide and remove stigma about seeking mental health help. Flanking the exhibitor space was the Legion’s “Greatest Legislation” display on the history of the GI Bill, from its conception as the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 to the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2017, named for the American Legion past national commander credited as chief architect of the original legislation.

The conference also included breakout sessions led by Legionnaires, including national Legislative Division Director Lawrence Montreuil, who gave a presentation on effective planning and best practices to engage lawmakers and other government officials. Tango Alpha Lima podcast co-host Ashley Gorbulja – an Ohio Army National Guard veteran, Virginia Legionnaire, former student veteran at the University of Akron and founder/CEO of GuideOn Education, LLC – led three breakout sessions, including one on how student veterans can maximize scholarships and other assistance programs to augment their GI Bill education benefits.

At one breakout session, VA Chief Readjustment Counseling Services Officer Michael Fisher announced two coming changes in the Vet Center program, which provides confidential peer-to-peer counseling for veterans throughout the country and beyond. Recent legislation will soon open Vet Center eligibility to student veterans using their VA education benefits. Another announcement: new scholarships are now authorized for student veterans pursuing advanced degrees in social work, psychology, mental health counseling and marriage/family therapy. “We will pay for two years of that degree,” he said. “In most cases, like in a social work degree or master’s degree, that will pay for the entire degree program.” Applications are set to be taken by March 1.

Upon completion, scholarship recipients will move into a commitment to work in VA. “It’s to help us in places where there is demand where we can’t meet demand,” Fisher said. “That could be an urban setting. It could be a rural setting. And there also has to be a focus on Native American communities, as well.”

VA provides more than 300 Vet Centers and about 1,000 community-access points, to go along with 83 mobile units, one of which was parked at the conference.

Student learned about resume-writing, trauma recovery, storytelling, entrepreneurial opportunities, PACT Act details and challenges faced by veterans of the LGBTQ+ community.

In one session, clinical research nurse Chelsey Simoni of the HunterSeven Foundation gave an alarming presentation on the high number of post-9/11 veterans who are diagnosed with, and dying from, various cancers.

“Post-9/11 veterans are young, otherwise healthy,” she told attendees of her session. “At one point, they were in the top 1% of our nation’s population. They don’t fit the bill. None of them fit the bill for cancer. But, think about it, one in seven? That’s a few of you.”

She explained that the cancers are not always associated with burn-pit exposure, which was a key contributor to passage of the PACT Act last August, which opened up VA disability and health-care recognition to some 3.5 million exposed post-9/11 veterans. Contact with jet fuel, unexploded ordnance, sandstorms, explosions, sleep deprivation and associated immunity decline and contaminated water overseas are among many other causes for high cancer rates.

“Everyplace you go, you can be exposed,” she said. “Germany is one of the greatest places to be stationed, but the water is toxic, 100% of the time. I didn’t know that, but you’re showering in this water, you’re bathing in this water, you’re brushing your teeth in this water. They tell you there is no safe day to drink the water in Germany. But we can bathe in it, brush our teeth in it. So, it’s those things that the eyes don’t see.”

The HunterSeven Foundation, she explained, provides funding for a blood test that is not covered by VA or usually by insurance that looks for more than 50 types of cancer among veterans. The foundation also logs duty assignments, locations, combat exposure and other factors that can trigger cancer. The key, she said, is to catch it early through testing, which is what the foundation seeks to achieve.

Attendees also heard from 64-year-old California State University Stanislaus graduate student and Navy veteran June Sidlauskas that “you’re never too old for obtaining your degree. Within the last decade, more and more of the older generation are not only going back to school but graduating at a higher rate.”

Harris attended several of the breakout sessions, which she praised on Saturday. “I felt this magic and this energy that could only have come from the Student Veterans of America … I was enriched with the knowledge of just being here.”

She added that SVA has illuminated the way in which veterans make major differences on campus. “Traditional students attend college to receive an education,” she said. “But student veterans are different. You bring the education to the classroom. Your knowledge of world events didn’t come from reading books. It came from being a participant in world events. You walked the walk, and you all shaped the world we live in.”

The student veterans spent Friday morning on the mats with the Veterans Yoga Project, which is rapidly expanding to involve more American Legion posts throughout the country. On Saturday, SVA members wore their blue for a morning remembrance run ahead of the day’s events.

Honors were presented to top student veterans and SVA chapters across the country, and former Department of Defense Secretary and two-term U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel – who discussed with Navy veteran moderator Justin Brown (founder of the veterans government support organization HillVets) his GI Bill experience after coming home from the Vietnam War and later to later fight in Washington for passage of the Post 9/11 GI Bill – received the SVA’s Bob Dole Continued Service Award. “This country is going through a difficult time now,” Hagel said after accepting the award. “But we are a nation so much better than what we have seen in the last few years. The world knows that, and I think most Americans know it. We will come out of this. We will. We will come out of it not just because we always do. We will come out of it because of the right people. You all are so much a part of that because you believe in things. You make the world better. You’ve done that in your young lives already. And you’re going to continue to do it.”

At Friday’s honors luncheon, Department of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona took the stage to address the group, and VA Secretary Denis McDonough appeared by video after his flight was delayed between Washington and Orlando. Saturday’s closing session also featured best-selling author/journalist Sebastian Junger and retired Master Sgt. Cedric King, who lost both legs to an IED in Afghanistan and is now an inspirational speaker and athlete; his conference finale involved a “don’t quit” push-up challenge with a half-dozen student veterans on stage, including one with a prosthetic arm, who were soon followed by dozens more from the audience who came up to cheer and to do push-ups along with them.

Montreuil represented The American Legion in a Saturday panel discussion to brief SVA members on the work of VSOs in attendance, including Veterans of Foreign Wars, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Disabled Veterans of America, Paralyzed American Veterans, TAPS, Blue Star Families, the Military Officers Association of America and the Wounded Warrior Project.

Moderating the discussion was Justin Hauschild, SVA’s policy counsel, who reflected on the conference’s theme of “On the Shoulders of Giants” before introducing the VSO representatives. “The veterans service and military service organizations of America really represent those giants in this space,” he said. “SVA is incredibly honored these days to be standing arm in arm with these veteran and military organizations.”

Also Saturday, Lyon took time from what he correctly predicted would be “the most robust” NatCon schedule ever to meet with the Tango Alpha Lima podcast hosts and talk about SVA’s relationship with the Legion. In the appearance, he noted that NatCon was originally modeled to become something like an American Legion National Convention.

 “When we started to think through how the organization would work, what it would look like, how it would be structured, we looked to The American Legion,” Lyon told co-hosts Gorbulja and Jeff Daly of Hollywood, Calif., Post 43. “We were not really at convention size yet, so we went for a conference instead. Being at that intersection point between military, transition and on to what comes next … career and thinking through the rest of life, a conference felt a little more appropriate at the time.”

The first conference, he explained, was “in the snowy suburbs of Chicago, Ill., in January of 2008, where we had, give or take, our first 23 founding chapters from 16 states. There were like 80 people there.”

Lyon, in his conference-opening remarks, discussed both the progress SVA has made and the challenges ahead. “If we think about it, both the American and the SVA experiences (have a) shared goal of a distant perfection that is on our horizon – and, I’d like to argue at the same time, the imperfection of the present.

“We have yet to find the perfect symmetry. But the asymmetry of not always knowing the answer, of being comfortable in doubt, of possessing the vision without necessarily knowing how you’ll achieve it, fumbling toward success while experiencing all the bright spots and the challenges along the way … it is all beautiful. And it is quintessentially the servicemember and veteran experience because each of us has challenges, and once they are overcome, there is no resting on our collective laurels, but rather a commitment to keep striving and progressing, no matter how many successes we have under our belts. It’s the human condition, told through the lens of a devoted community. And our story can only be told while standing on the shoulders of giants.

“It is my hope that we all think of those who have come before us. It is those who have come before us who laid the foundation that we walk on now, just as we shall for those who will come after us. As they say, it’s the journey, not the destination.”