Serving Those Who Served: University's Military Division Makes it Personal with Veterans

Story By Michael Ferraresi
Photos By Darryl Webb
GCU Today Magazine

After Iraq, Donterry Colombel told himself he would never spend another day in a desert.

Then, after his medical retirement from the Marines, Colombel realized the best way to build his post-military career required moving to unfamiliar Arizona. He joined nearly 6,000 other veterans and active-duty military personnel currently studying at Grand Canyon University.

The Louisiana native served in the U.S. Marine Corps for more than 11 years, including as a team leader of an incident-response platoon during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Colombel provided security for high-valued personnel, trained Marines in everything from hand-to-hand combat to base defense, and served for most of his adult life since his parents supported his decision to enlist at 17.

Colombel, now 30, retired two years ago as a staff sergeant. He was used to taking and giving orders and dealing with high-stress combat situations. Returning home to the comforts and old ways of his bayou hometown of Larose, La., provided more culture shock than a two-year assignment to Okinawa, Japan.

Colombel planned to earn a bachelor’s degree, setting out with GCU online at first, but was leery about heading back to campus. Although he held the rank of staff sergeant and the billet of police chief for the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, Colombel now volunteers as a crime scene and weapons instructor with the campus Law Enforcement Club.

GCU’s burgeoning Military Division and the calming culture of the private, Christian university also helped ease him into life as a student.

“It’s that transition phase that’s most difficult,” said Colombel, who aims to complete his bachelor’s in criminal justice and work toward teaching collegiate law enforcement-related courses.

“You feel alone,” he said. “You feel there is no one to relate to, or to back you.”

The shift out of active duty can be stressful beyond what many stateside Americans are accustomed to. With so many U.S. military personnel seeking to take advantage of educational benefits to offset tuition and build new careers, GCU developed a Military Division staff exclusively dedicated to serving veterans. Dozens of counselors in the Military Division are also veterans, ranging from Vietnam vets to active-duty National Guard.

Earlier this year, GCU opened a campus Veterans Center staffed daily with counselors familiar with navigating military educational benefits. The space is reserved for veterans and their families, giving them an alternative place to study or relax in between classes.

Colombel described GCU classrooms as comfortable, with multiple veterans in some of his recent classes. Many of the young people he shares assignments with are the same age as many of the Marines he trained in a more rigorous military classroom setting.

“It’s a little more interactive,” Colombel said of his new learning format. “(GCU faculty) go far out to lend tutoring to those who need it. It’s more helpful than I’m used to. It’s less formal.

“The focus of this school is academic,” he added. “You can see that as soon as you step on deck.”

‘Above and beyond’

Over the past four years, GCU has grown its Military Division to include nearly 150 employees, mostly enrollment counselors who serve as the primary liaison between the University and student veterans.

Brett Mitnick, who is one of nine Military Division enrollment managers, said his team takes pride in providing precise assistance to veterans studying online.

“You’re potentially speaking to them over in Okinawa or Afghanistan, or you’re dealing with the spouses of people who are called to service all over the world,” Mitnick said. “For soldiers returning from duty, who are now transitioning into civilian life ... it’s a great feel-good for my counselors to help someone like that.”

Military Division staff estimated that around 10 percent of the roughly 6,000 military students attending GCU are active duty. But Bart Burkert, the executive vice president who oversees the division, would like to enroll more active-duty military and help them consistently maintain their degrees.

The bottom line is assisting veterans and making their University experience more fulfilling.

Tyler Davis, 25, a Marine veteran who lives in the suburbs north of Chicago, enrolled online at GCU after his mother — a fellow GCU online student — suggested he make the switch from community college. His brother and fellow Marine, Kyle Davis, joined their mother in seeking a degree in secondary education.

GCU military enrollment counselor Bill McNally helped Tyler Davis on the path toward earning a business degree. Davis said he was pleased with how McNally helped him make sense of his education options over the phone, making him feel as if he were sitting face-to-face with an adviser.

“Bill definitely goes above and beyond his job,” Tyler Davis said. “I’ve never seen Bill, I don’t know what he looks like. But when I call and say, ‘It’s Tyler,’ he already knows who I am.”

Refuge for reflection

Colombel sat outside the Veterans Center patio overlooking the campus pool. There was nothing like it in the Marines, he said.

He could study in between breaks in his classes in the peace of the private room, or lounge and watch music videos or movies from new leather furniture, often surrounded by other veterans who’ve taken a similar path to GCU. The Veterans Center is a refuge in that way.

“There’s so many of us here, we’re happy to help them out, get them straight, help them get to where they need to go. We look out for each other,” Colombel said.

The Veterans Center often provides retired Navy hospital corpsman Tim Walker with a calm, quiet break between classes. The 29-year-old southern California native moved to Phoenix to take psychology classes on campus to earn his bachelor’s degree by December.

Walker planned to graduate quickly to move on to master’s studies so he can eventually work with other veterans who, like him, suffer from the flashbacks and nightmares related to post-traumatic stress disorder. After eight years as a medic attached to the First Marine Division and a Marine air-wing unit, Walker has four tours worth of memories from high-intensity combat situations in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Focusing on studies can be difficult on some days with the activity and crowds on campus, so the Veterans Center is a place Walker can find a little extra solitude, where he doesn’t need to explain his history or condition so much.

Billing specialist Jessica Christenson, known by many of the campus veterans as “Jess” (or their “den mother,” as Colombel joked), works Monday through Friday at the Veterans Center. She helps student veterans navigate their benefits with the VA and also joins the potlucks and get-togethers. The vets also are teaching her the military lingo she needs to truly blend into their circle.

Seeing young men and women from the ongoing wars in the Middle East sharing the same space is gratifying, Christenson said. She loves coming to work for that reason and being in a position to help those who’ve sacrificed so much through their service.

“I think this is an area where they’re on the same page,” Christenson said about the range of veterans who visit the center. “From boot camp to wars … they just see things that (many Americans) haven’t seen or experienced.”

Contact Michael Ferraresi at 639.7030 or [email protected].


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