Salute Our Troops changes lives of vets, volunteers

Story by Lana Sweeten-Shults
Photos by David Kadlubowski
GCU News Bureau

Vanessa Romeo, a university counselor in the Military Division, gives a GCU camouflage-patterned cap to one of the residents at the Arizona State Veteran Home during Salute Our Troops on Wednesday.

Vanessa Romeo hit the conversation gold mine.

“Do you like any cookie -- ANY cookie?” asked Romeo, a Grand Canyon Education university counselor in the Military Division, as she chatted with one of the veterans at the Arizona State Veteran Home on Wednesday morning.

Then she skated into other topics: “Do you know how to cook? ”she asked, and after she handed him a Grand Canyon University camouflage-print cap, she pointed to it. “What do you think about this?” she wondered. “Do you like it? When you put it on, will you think of me?”

Romeo was one of about 50 GCU and GCE volunteers who spent the morning at Salute Our Troops, a GCU signature event that, traditionally, unfolds a few days before Memorial Day weekend.

“This is EVERYTHING to me,” Romeo said. “My dad is a veteran. He served in the Marine Corps, and my sister serves active duty in the Air Force.”

This was the first year she volunteered for Salute Our Troops.

“Any opportunity to volunteer for GCU, I’m in line for it,” she said. “I just want to make the veterans feel good – make them laugh and make them forget about why they’re here.”

She beamed about the event and about the veteran she gabbed with: He’s from Mississippi. One of eight children. His daughter and granddaughter visit him every day. His grandson brings him cookies.

“His face changed when he started talking about the cookies,” Romeo said with a laugh. That’s when she knew she stumbled onto one of his favorite topics.

Veterans and volunteers spent the morning playing games, such as Scrabble.

Wednesday’s Salute Our Troops marked the ninth year of the event. Employees loaded up in vans and headed to the Arizona State Veteran Home to do something that seems so simple: Visit with the residents.

“This event is going to change your life,” Chris Landauer, Regional Director of Online Enrollment Operations for the Military Division, said at an employee gathering a few minutes before the event’s start. “… Jesus does awesome things, and he uses us to make a difference in our society. … You’re going to see it, you’re going to feel it, and you’re going to have a lot of fun.”

Following a breakfast of pastries and fruits supplied by Canyon 49 Grill, veterans, alongside GCU and GCE volunteers (and University mascot Thunder, of course), played beanbag toss, cornhole, Nerf Gun target practice, Texas Hold 'Em, and virtual bowling and “Just Dance” on the Xbox Kinect.

Jeanette Morgan, Music Therapist for the Veteran Home, said Salute Our Troops is one of the facility’s bigger events.

“They (the veterans) enjoy seeing the young people. They appreciate them,” Morgan said and added of the volunteers, “They are always very enthusiastic.”

About 50 GCU and GCE volunteers spent the morning at the veteran home.

Tiffany Banner, a student services counselor with the Military Division, has volunteered for seven of the nine years of Salute Our Troops.

“My father is a veteran, so it’s always important to me to let all of our veterans know how important they are,” Banner said.

The importance of occasions such as Memorial Day and Veterans Day has meant more to her lately – as have organizations such as the Arizona State Veteran Home and the Carl T. Hayden Veterans’ Administration Medical Center.

Banner has had to bring her father to the medical center for chemotherapy treatments in recent months.

“That made it real for me,” she said of the importance of such facilities -- and the importance of her father and veterans like him. In addition to her father, who served in the Navy, Banner’s stepson is serving in the military.

Banner said her father completed his treatments and is in remission. That made Salute Our Troops “a little more special to me. … I just have to show my appreciation.”

She then pointed to two veterans beside her, one helping serve the other breakfast: “I LOVE seeing that,” she whispered. “They’re friends. He’s taking care of him.”

Military Division university counselor Shane Olson, himself an Air Force veteran, said he loves to hear fellow veterans' stories.

This was the fifth year Shane Olson, a university counselor in the Military Division, has volunteered for the event.

As a veteran himself – he served as an F-16 Fighting Falcon crew chief in the Air Force -- he feels a connection with the residents.

“A lot of them don’t get a whole lot of visitors,” he said, remembering one veteran he had spent time with at a previous event who hadn’t been visited by his family in eight years.

Some have no family at all.

What he likes the most, he said, is interacting with the residents and hearing their stories.

Military Division university counselor Joe Hubbard shared the same sentiment. He loves hearing the veterans’ stories and learning about “history you don’t find in the military books.”

He remembers learning from one veteran about African-American military regiments called Buffalo Soldiers.

Vanessa Garcia, who works in administrative support for Military/Business Operations, has helped organize Salute Our Troops for six years.

The event wrapped up with the singing of Armed Forces songs and the GCU Fight Song.

“It’s such a sweet event,” she said.

She remembers one story that will stay with her for a long time. The first year she was involved in Salute Our Troops, she spoke to a man who had just been placed at the veteran home.

“He told me how lonely he was. … Four years later, and he had just got married. It was love at first sight,” Garcia said. “It was really cool to see. You check in with them each year.”

While many employees had served at the event multiple times -- it is a special event for the Military Division -- several were new to Salute Our Troops, such as employees in GCU’s Office of Academic Records.

Erin Maden, OAR director, said about 10 team members volunteered.

Ron LeFevre and other Arizona State Veteran Home residents played Nerf target practice as well as Texas Hold 'Em, Xbox Kinect bowling and other games.

“We thought this was a great opportunity to have team-building – and to help others. … We like giving back and seeing how GCU impacts the community,” Maden said. She added that the Veterans Resource Center is part of OAR and so Salute Our Troops seemed like the perfect fit for her team.

Ron LeFevre, a veteran from Illinois, busied himself at the Veteran Home playing a bit of Xbox bowling before moving to the Nerf Gun shooting range. When his brother, who lives in the Phoenix area, discovered he needed medical help, he asked LeFevre to relocate here. He was in Payson for a time and now is at the Arizona State Veteran Home.

LeFevre, who served in the Navy in places such as France, Italy and Barcelona, said it was his job to land troops on the shore.

It was the ninth year for Salute Our Troops.

He enjoyed his time at Salute Our Troops, which wrapped up -- as it does every year -- with the singing of Armed Service songs and the GCU Fight Song.

“It’s good for the place,” he said of the event. “We have a lot of entertainment. It was a lot of fun.”

Follow GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.


Related content:

GCU Today: Great Stories, Great Memories as GCU salutes vets

GCU blogs: How to take advantage of our campus Veterans Center

GCU Today: ROTC program has record membership, new leader

GCU blogs: What is military tuition assistance?


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