A Mission Borne of Necessity
At the beginning of Abraham Lincoln’s second term as President of the United States, the nation was jaggedly torn in two. The U.S. trembled on the precipice of permanent failure as a union. It was under these terrifying prospects that Lincoln gave his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865. In this desperate and hopeful speech Lincoln uttered the words forming the standard by which the U.S. treats the men and women that have served the nation’s interests.
“Let us strive … to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
These words were the final sentence of Lincoln’s address, and in giving them he affirmed a towering obligation for the government to uphold. Today, that obligation officially falls beneath the authority of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, an infamous cabinet-level arm of the federal government. Locally though, and with a far more positive track record, there is a small room in the basement of the SUB that houses the folks who aim to do their part in Lincoln’s endeavour.
The Veteran Support Center, known colloquially as the Veteran’s Center, resides in room 185 of the SUB and serves a vital role for MSU. According to Brenda York, director of Disability, Re-entry and Veteran Services, 578 students are currently being served by the Veteran’s Center as of the current semester.
Services and Safe Haven
The Veteran’s Center is a refuge and home base for these 578 students. Although most of the students served are veterans themselves, a small number are also beneficiaries of veterans. “The point of it is, it’s a place where they can come in to fill out their paperwork [for benefits], study and relax,” York said. The space is often used for events, tutoring and mentorship as well.
The Center is staffed by knowledgeable professionals, who can help veterans get set-up for classes and navigate the ins and outs of federal benefits.
The most important function of the Center’s services is providing resources for counseling and a safe place where those around have had similar, related experiences during their time in the service.
“It’s hard for transitioning veterans to go into class with 18 and 19-year-olds. Some of them don’t even know there was a war. There’s a huge disconnect,” York said. Therein lies a purpose for the Center, which goes beyond paperwork and studying. The U.S. has an entire generation of servicemembers who have fought in a conflict that has been farther from our minds than any before it. Sitting in class with starry-eyed young adults naive to some of the harsher realities of the world doesn’t exactly aid in the transition process.
For Ryan King, an Army veteran who deployed twice as an infantryman to Iraq and Afghanistan, this particular note rings true. “I’ve only been out of active [duty] for two years. It’s been three years since the end of my second deployment. That’s really not that long, when you think about it. Getting out and just hopping right into school, there was really no time to transition at all.”
King continued, “So everything is just happening all at once, and just to have that space is nice. Even if I don’t talk to anybody, I know that I’m surrounded by similar and like-minded people sitting in the same room with me.”
And when a veteran needs a professional to talk to, the Veteran’s Center provides a listening ear. “I called the Vet Center, and they referred me to counseling right as soon as I needed it,” King said.
Bursting at the Seams
The number of student veterans being served by the space isn’t static, however. The demand is growing along with the rest of MSU. According to York, there was a 78.1 percent increase in veterans studying at MSU between 2009 – 2014. The Veteran’s Center has responded to growth before; the Center didn’t even have its current, marginal space until 2011. These increasing numbers tell a success story. MSU is known as a veteran-friendly institution.
Most growing seems to be coupled with pains however, and the Veteran’s Center’s pain is its size: the center is only 700 square feet. “At any given time we have 23 seats in the Veteran’s Center. That’s including computers, tables, everything.” explained York. A space that size is ridiculously small, given the safe-space purpose the Center serves.
“The only turn-off for me is that it’s so small,” said King. The last time the Montana Legislature met, a renovation package for Romney Gym, which included a sizeable upgrade for the veterans center, faced the Legislature and was given a thumbs down.
“We were talking about doubling the space, maybe adding a conference room. It was a need, not a want,” York said. “The vets even went up to the capitol and testified to the committee for the need for it.” The Legislature was unswayed, and since the renovation was small part of a larger, controversial infrastructure bill, the beneficial results were lost in state politics. “Romney Gym would’ve been nice to have,” King said.
Focus for the Future
Despite having a shot at expansion yanked from their grasp, the people at the Veteran’s Center remain focused on their mission. “Vets have given to our country, so let’s make sure they get out of here with a good education and get jobs. That’s the end goal,” York said. “MSU is always really right there for veteran’s issues.” This sentiment was confirmed by King: “The Vet Center is definitely an asset to me.”
The failed expansion didn’t seem to surprise York. “It’s politics in Montana. It’s the just way it is.”
The Center will have its chance at development again with the next Legislative session in 2017. Until then, MSU must make do with the space that it has.
That space is certainly being used in an excellent fashion. “A lot of veterans are returning and MSU is a prime spot for them,” York said. Whatever future sessions and funding may bring, MSU can take pride and solace in the knowledge that educating those that have served is of the utmost priority to our institution. To care for him who shall have borne the battle, indeed.