Story by Lana Sweeten-Shults
Photos by Travis Neely
GCU News Bureau
Tito Sewer never jumped out of an airplane during his service in Vietnam. It was too risky.
Sewer served in the 101st Army Airborne Division and, as a “Screaming Eagle,” was trained for air assault operations. But in Vietnam, where it was too risky to jump out of planes because of the chances of being shot by the enemy, he rappelled into action instead.
The native of the U.S. Virgin Islands liked the excitement of the 101st — shrinking violet he is not — and served in the military for 23 years before settling in Phoenix, moving here “on a dare,” he said with a smile.
It’s just one of the stories Grand Canyon University employees collected and slipped into their memory banks as part of the University’s eighth annual Salute Our Troops. About 50 GCU military division employees on Wednesday loaded up four passenger vans and headed to the 200-bed Arizona State Veteran Home, nestled between the Carl T. Hayden Veterans Affairs Medical Center on Indian School Road and Steele Indian School Park.
They played Texas Hold ’Em poker with the veterans, all of whom are receiving medical and rehabilitative care at the facility. They shot Nerf guns at bottle targets, played bean bag toss, belted out military fight songs, listened to a song or two by the Doors, and joked around with GCU mascot Thunder, who was in fine form.
But, most of all, they spent time at the skilled care nursing facility talking and sharing stories as Memorial Day fast approaches.
Adam Ursetta, university counseling manager, has volunteered for Salute Our Troops several times. He said his favorite part of the event is hearing the veterans’ stories. Ursetta’s father served in the Korean War and on the USS Wisconsin, an Iowa-class battleship that also was part of the Pacific Fleet in World War II and was called into action when Iraq invaded Kuwait before being decommissioned in 1991.
“I grew up hearing his stories,” said Ursetta, who followed in his father’s footsteps. He also served in the Navy as an aviation boatswain’s mate. Having been in the military himself, Ursetta said, “It’s cool to hear their (the veterans’) old-school Navy stories.”
His dad spent some time in a care facility, so he felt it was especially important to give back. He remembers how “some of them (in the care facility) didn’t have family or didn’t have kids who lived in town” and didn’t get a lot of visitors.
Chris Landauer, a regional director of online enrollment operations for the military division, agreed that each of the veterans he has met over the six years he has volunteered for this event “has an awesome story to tell.”
He remembers one veteran who played for the University of Nebraska and was in the Football Hall of Fame. He carried his Hall of Fame plaque with him: “He was proud to walk around with that plaque,” Landauer said.
The other thing he loves is seeing the veterans’ faces light up.
“They’ll beg you not to leave,” he said. “And there are certain ones who remember certain ones of us each year. It’s pretty cool they remember us. My dad is in a home like this. It’s sad because, for some of them, there aren’t a lot of relatives who come to visit.”
Danielle Baker, a university counselor, spent some time talking to veterans as they ate refreshments provided by Canyon 49 Grill. She listened closely to one veteran, always making eye contact with him.
Her dad served and her brothers are in active duty with the Navy. It was her third time being a Salute Our Troops volunteer.
“You get to meet so many cool people and hear their stories; you get a different perspective of history. You hear those stories firsthand. … You get to hear their lives,” said Baker, who also volunteered at the popular Nerf gun target practice area (the room of GCU employees cheered every time a veteran hit the target, which was often).
Student services counselor Tiffany Banner said it was her fourth time to be a part of Salute Our Troops.
“My dad’s a veteran – he served in the Navy and just had to be treated here (at the VA hospital) for chemo. I said, ‘They’re taking care of my dad right now; I NEED to go (volunteer).’”
Banner said she just wants to give back to the veterans and show them “I do appreciate the time they’ve given to us.”
Debbi Artz, student services counselor, has volunteered for Salute Our Troops six of the seven years she has been at GCU.
“I love this event,” she said, adding how sad she is when she returns the next year and doesn’t see a veteran from a previous year. “They remember us when we come in.”
Not that GCU’s employees were the only ones who were appreciative of their few hours with the veterans.
The wife of one of the residents — her husband had been at the facility for just one week – smiled while making a point of telling a couple of the volunteers, “This is the first day he’s been so animated.”
Kayla Uptain, Therapeutic Program Manager for the Veteran Home, said, “They love the event! They love the 1:1 time to talk with the volunteers and share their stories. They also love the games and engaging in the activities with the group. GCU staff and volunteers are upbeat and bring a positive vibe to our residents here, which they love and appreciate! I have received comments like ‘That was a great event!’, ‘I wish we had this more often’ and ‘That was fun!’”
Landauer said being able to make an impact on these veterans’ day is incredible. Besides those stories you collect, the feeling you get from Salute Our Troops is one of the other precious things you get to stow away in your pocket: “If God hasn’t moved your spirit in a while, He’s going to move your spirit today.”
You can reach GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 602-639-7901. Follow her on Twitter @LanaSweetenShul.