The ‘best kind of handshake’ for young veterans

Six-year U.S. Air Force veteran Myra Hallman, secretary of her Student Veterans of America (SVA) chapter at Humboldt State University in northern California, wasn’t sure how she was going to make it to SVA’s 10th national convention Jan. 4-6 in San Antonio. The problem was a lack of available resources.

She turned to Arcadia American Legion Post 247. “They heard about our issues with funding, and at a meeting discussed what the options were,” Hallman said Friday after visiting “The Greatest Legislation: An American Legion Centennial Salute to the GI Bill” traveling exhibit at the convention. “They got together and partnered with the local Coast Guard unit, and they were able to rally up some money for a scholarship for myself and one other person.”

Now, she adds, “I’m a member of that post.”

Hallman was among an estimated 1,600 attending the convention of the organization that formed in 2008, and was housed in its early years at The American Legion National Headquarters in Washington, D.C. SVA has since grown to serve some 500,000 student veterans through more than 1,300 campus chapters nationwide.

Among the attendees was Derek Blumke, a U.S. Air Force veteran from Michigan and founding president and chief executive officer of SVA, as well as a member of The American Legion’s 100th Anniversary Observance Committee.

“This 10th anniversary conference is the culmination of blood, sweat and sacrifice of some the nation’s greatest leaders and future leaders,” Blumke said. “It’s an organization that I was fortunate enough to have been involved in at its formation. It’s a big family.”

Student veterans swarmed around the Legion centennial exhibit, shooting and posting on social media smartphone photos of two particular artifacts on display – a pen President Franklin D. Roosevelt used to sign the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 and a Sharpie used by President Donald J. Trump to sign the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2017, the “Forever GI Bill” that relieves restrictions on the length of time veterans have to use their education benefits. The act was officially named in honor of The American Legion past national commander considered the chief architect of the original GI Bill.

American Legion District 20 Commander Al Alford of San Antonio said he thinks the student veterans discovered something about the organization after visiting the multi-media exhibit.

“You know, I find that most of them are not familiar with how this thing came about,” said Alford, who used his GI Bill benefits and DoD tuition assistance to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees during his 31-year Air Force career. “Where did it come from? Having a display like this here is very important to educate them on the importance of the GI Bill, as we look at potential enhancements – or even drawbacks in the future – that they will be cognizant of what they need to do to make sure this bill stays in place, with adjustments as necessary.”

“I learned something new,” said Brandon Blake, a member of American Legion Post 13 in Anacortes, Wash., and an SVA member who has used his GI Bill benefits to earn an associate’s degree in welding at Skagit Valley College and is now working toward another in marine technology. “I live in a coastal town, so the welding and marine industry are pretty big there.”

“If you look at the GI Bill story itself, it really is a fascinating story,” Alford said. “The American Legion has always been at the forefront. And importantly, at the student veterans association meetings here, we get to recruit younger members. We need younger members, new blood into The American Legion in order for us to progress and move forward as an organization into the future. To me, this is one of the seeds that we need as part of our recruitment efforts.”

Blake would not disagree with the value of connecting the 10-year-old veterans group with the Legion, which is nearing its 100th anniversary. “The Legion, in my experience, saved my life,” Blake said. “I depended on alcohol heavily, and they got me the help that I needed. They knew how to speak the VA language that I needed to translate and get into a rehabilitation center and get me where I am now.”

In addition to his educational pursuits, Blake is also now an American Legion service officer dedicated to helping his fellow veterans. The former tank commander who fought in the troop surge during Operation Iraqi Freedom and came home after nine years in the Army with what he describes as “pretty serious battle fatigue” said his appreciation of The American Legion grew as he got to know it better. “I’m glad there are organizations like this – especially the Legion – that have stepped up and taken veterans in and helped them transition,” he explained, “Ultimately, it’s having peers you can relate to. Without the Legion, that wouldn’t exist.”

“The connection with The American Legion is something I am really proud of,” said Blumke, who said American Legion Past National Adjutant and Past National Commander Robert Spanogle was a critical mentor to him and SVA in the student veterans organization’s infancy. “I think The American Legion is one of the greatest organizations this country has produced,” Blumke said. “It’s an organization that has helped shape this country. I see a partnership with SVA as something that’s going to be beneficial to our country’s success as we go through challenging times ahead.”

“Some of the biggest issues we have is, as a community, just being recognized by our administration and having an appropriate work space or community space,” Hallman said. “The benefit that we are finding is we are able to have a close-knit community. Actually, with the help of the local VFW-American Legion post, we have been able to use that as kind of an off-campus area for students to gather.”

“Our chapter is really engaged in the community, and we have worked with The American Legion,” said Rene Jiminez, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 2008 to 2013, and is now the SVA chapter president at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, Calif., as well as a member of a West Covina American Legion post. “At our second annual softball tournament (to raise scholarship funds), we reached out to American Legion and VFW posts, and they really helped us out. They were really supportive and recruited members there. Later that night, I became a member. I got to talk to them, see what they are about… and I liked it. After school, I think it will be a creative outlet for me. I like policy and government – the GI Bill – all that stuff is right up my alley.”

Jiminez was one of many student veterans who did not know The American Legion drafted the original GI Bill until he visited the exhibit at the convention. “I had no idea until I saw this thing. It’s incredible that veterans did it for veterans. That’s the most important part.”

He said his chapter plans to soon add a KIT (Keep in Touch) list of area veterans service organizations to go along with other SVA chapters the group engages regularly. “We hope to have a liaison for every American Legion post in the area. All this will be happening in the spring. It’s worked with our community colleges. We really want it to work for American Legion posts and VFW posts.”

Marine Corps veteran Kyle Brooke of Grand Valley State University in Michigan said his chapter has built a strong relationship with American Legion Post 459 in Grand Rapids, Mich., after one of the post’s officers “started coming to our meetings on campus and we started sharing resources, helping each other out at events. We would go and help host one of their events. They would let us use their post for fundraisers and dinners. Working back and forth between our chapter and the Legion post, 459 specifically, has been a great help. We did the Grand Rapids Veterans Day parade where we were marching with their post as well as sporting the Grand Valley State University SVA banner, so we were able to get out there and be seen more. Now, most of our members of the SVA are actually members of that post. So, we are also helping that post get a more youthful audience.”

He said his SVA chapter’s treasurer, Katy Harris, has taken her interest in veterans of earlier service a step further by visiting area nursing homes, interviewing those who served and writing their stories. “Especially when they don’t have family members in the area, that gives them an outlet, that social outlet,” said Brook, a senior philosophy major. “It is a wonderful experience. They both get a great thing out of it. You get companionship for the older veteran and a better understanding for the younger one.”

The relationship between Grand Valley State student veterans and the Legion made Brooke a member, he said. “I never really thought about an American Legion post or being a Legionnaire, but within the first few times I hung out there with SVA … where do I sign up? What do I do? I see what we’re doing here, and I like it.”

SVA members attending the convention said veteran-to-veteran engagement and advocacy is critical to the transition process to civilian life. “As a veteran, you may be working full time and going to school full-time, which I did, so you don’t have time to do internships or network in a traditional way,” said Vanessa Vinson, a software developer who spent five years as an Army avionics mechanic before she started a master’s program in leadership and change at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, using the Post 9/11 GI Bill’s Yellow Ribbon Program at the private school. “Having an opportunity to come together and dedicate yourself to networking with other veterans – maybe some veterans who have had more opportunities to do internships and learn what they are doing – builds a team camaraderie, especially since we come from similar backgrounds and we have similar issues getting into employment. Some of us may be starting new careers, which means, despite our excellent military careers, we are starting at the bottom, so that’s kind of an experience we have together that we can share.”

“When we were overseas, we were always leaning on each other,” Blumke explained. “Getting back, you can feel isolated at times. You can feel like you need to do everything alone. Having people around you who are going through similar experiences gives you other folks you can lean on.”

Vinson, also an American Legion member, said she would like to use her education and military experience to demonstrate to the corporate world what veterans bring to the table in the economy. “I have found that a lot of the Army values I learned are core to leadership,” she said. “In fact, a lot of the leadership studies that we do today, military research studies founded them. Finding out that a lot of the roots corporate America uses for leadership came from the military is kind of mind-blowing. I didn’t realize I had a lot of skills already until I started studying academically.”

The GI Bill, she explained, is a big reason she is able to chart her desired career path. “The GI Bill meant the freedom to go to school wherever I wanted to go. Service was something my family did, so that was kind of a no-brainer. The fact that there was a GI Bill there was an added bonus of service. I didn’t realize how amazing it was going to be until I got out and there was an opportunity to go to a private college using the Yellow Ribbon Program. That expansion allowed me to look at any school I was able to go to, which I wouldn’t have been able to do without military service.”

Army veteran Michael Duerr, who was at the conference to recruit students for domestic and international internships through the Washington Center, used his GI Bill benefits to earn a master’s degree in conflict resolution and mediation at Tel Aviv University in Israel. “Knowing that when I got out, the GI Bill was there for me to continue my academic pursuits was a safety net,” he said. “When I got out of the Army – that kind of shaky time of transitioning – I knew I could go back to school. I was very grateful.”

In addition to the benefits of education and career preparation, a deeper meaning of GI Bill benefits was not lost on veterans attending the convention. “I think (the GI Bill) is something that when I got out, was the best kind of handshake that you could receive in a true, material way, of saying thank you for your service, what you’ve done matters to our country, and we want to invest in you now,” Vinson said.

A resolution passed at the May 2015 meeting of The American Legion National Executive Committee encouraged collaborations with selected post-9/11 groups, including SVA, Team Rubicon, The Mission Continues and Team Red, White and Blue – all of whom were well represented at the 10th National Convention of SVA to do what the resolution suggests: “build and maintain mutually beneficial relationships.”

To learn more about the resolution and how it can be applied locally, click here.