Student vets club president sets sights high

May 16, 2014 / by / 0 Comment

Story by Michael Ferraresi
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU News Bureau

As dozens of Grand Canyon University students, staff and faculty streamed through the room, Ben Verseman remained focused on the meeting agenda for the campus chapter of Student Veterans of America.

In the cozy confines of the SVA’s campus Veterans Center, the passers-by were forced to walk through the club’s scheduled get-together on Thursday, practically brushing against student veterans such as Verseman — the club’s new president — en route to the back patio, where the USO had organized a mass flag-signing to honor U.S. service men and women.

Ben Verseman, GCU’s president of the campus chapter of Student Veterans of America, signs a book Thursday to confirm his signature on a USO military memorial flag that event organizers hope will break a mark in the Guinness Book of World Records. (Photo by Darryl Webb)

Ben Verseman, GCU’s president of the campus chapter of Student Veterans of America, signs a book Thursday to confirm his signature on a USO military memorial flag that event organizers hope will break a mark in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Several hundred GCU employees signed a portion of a massive flag in honor of Military Appreciation Month. Other pieces from 140 USOs around the world, each containing about 1,800 signatures, will be sewn back together into a flag to be flown at an upcoming sporting event.

For Verseman, 28, and his fellow student veterans, military appreciation is part of a daily duty and lifelong commitment. The pre-med student, who served as a U.S. Navy nuclear submarine engineer, said his fast-growing club will remain dedicated to assisting veterans on campus and throughout the community in the coming school year.

“We’re all out here for the University to utilize us in any way possible,” said Verseman, who moved to GCU from northern California after serving in the Navy for nine years, mostly serving on submarines assigned to intelligence-gathering missions. He retired as a Petty Officer 1st Class.

As staffers walked through the SVA club meeting to the flag signing, Verseman focused club members’ attention on fundraising, community service projects and the possibility of expanding the club to partner with GCU’s ROTC chapter.

Verseman said the club proposed the idea of expanding the Veterans Center in order to create a larger study area and quieter spaces for group meetings. The club applied for a grant for renovations but didn’t receive it, so Verseman and other club members are working with the University on options.

The SVA grew significantly in its first year under former president and Marine vet Donterry Colombel, who earned his bachelor’s degree this spring. Verseman said in about one year, the SVA grew to nearly 300 student veteran members on the ground campus, although the club boasts nearly 3,000 online members.

GCU opened its Veterans Center as a lounge and sanctuary for veterans and their families more than a year ago. The modest room at Building 18 near a campus swimming pool quickly emerged as a central gathering place for vets to meet and navigate their educational benefits, largely through the help of Jessica Christenson, a military billing specialist dedicated to aiding student veterans.

Verseman spent much of his military career on submarines, often sleeping in confined spaces where the top of his bunk was a couple of inches from the tip of his nose. He also assisted Navy corpsman on routine medical procedures, which led to his interest in earning a health care degree. But he said his role paled in comparison to some of the combat experiences, injuries and post-traumatic stress of his SVA brethren.

An expanded Veterans Center, he said, could include space for group counseling for vets struggling with PTSD. Verseman said his club has an agreement with a local vets center to provide counseling services.

Verseman added that many vets face culture shock when they return home. Some stand out on a college campus, and while many non-vets can be welcoming, others can unconsciously alienate veterans.

“It’s easy to tell (veterans who’ve served in combat),” Verseman said. “The way they talk, the way they walk.”

However, GCU built the Veterans Center as a place for vets to study or relax between classes. In more than one year since the center opened, student veterans have reported feeling more comfortable on campus and more connected with the campus community.

“A big contributor to that issue before was the lack of infrastructure,” he said. “They were used to such a structured environment that coming to college can seem so unstructured.”

Verseman said he still runs into student veterans who claim they didn’t know GCU had a lounge dedicated to them. He said the SVA is working with University officials to incorporate club invitations and resource information to veterans and their families as part of new-student welcome packets.

The GCU Veterans Center is a single, rectangular room at Building 18. A plan has been proposed to expand the existing site.

The GCU Veterans Center is a single, rectangular room at Building 18. A plan was proposed to expand the existing site.

The SVA includes a wide range of vets of all ages, from all types of military backgrounds.

After 21 years in the Army, Rob Smith, 42, is studying toward a secondary education degree with the hope of becoming a high school history teacher. Smith said he served several combat tours in Iraq after the 2003 invasion and retired as a master sergeant.

Smith said he has been pleased with the SVA’s growth and dedication to volunteering with nonprofit veteran support organizations such as The Mission Continues and the MANA House in downtown Phoenix, which provides transitional living for at-risk vets.

Like many GCU club members, Smith said he’s disappointed with how veterans are misunderstood by the public.

“There’s too many stereotypes about vets in movies and media,” Smith said. “I guess (our SVA focus is) just expanding our humanitarian efforts.… It allows us to reach out to the community and emphasize what real veterans stand for.”

SVA secretary Jesus “Chachi” Cano, 24, a Navy veteran who grew up in Phoenix, described the club as “a little family.” He said club members share the same ideals about giving back to the community and helping veterans adjust to civilian life.

“(At GCU), we’re really fortunate,” Cano said. “We try to build a lot of camaraderie. That really helps with the transition.”

Contact Michael Ferraresi at 602.639.7030 or [email protected].

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