New group lends support to student military veterans

Military veterans trying to find their niche on the Portland State campus will soon have a new place to turn. A small group of students who have served in the military have formed a new student organization called Operation Veteran Freedom, with a mission to provide a connection to friends and resources for Portland State’s growing veteran population.

The number of veterans at PSU has risen in recent years, said Barbara Hill, veteran certification officer. Hill certifies approximately 600 students who are military veterans using their benefits each year.

Jake Meeks, group organizer and acting president, said that the group was formed primarily to allow veterans to connect with one another and share experiences.

“When you get out, you’re used to being able to talk about the military, but a lot of people find that they can’t,” Meeks said.

Meeks served in the Army from 2000 to 2004, completing tours of duty in both Kosovo and Afghanistan. “A lot of people get hammered with misunderstanding. They don’t always feel like sharing what they’ve been through, but they have to work through it. The best way is to talk with each other – we speak the same language.”

George Verdugo, another founding member of the group and former Marine, said that once out of the service, he felt he no longer fit into the school community. “I felt out of place. A lot of veterans don’t quite fit. Military folks, we have our own little culture. We just click. You know, I see other guys on campus. I notice their little walk, their haircut, the way they talk. I can see it in their face. When I take the bus, I see a lot of cats in fatigues. I can tell who’s former military.”

In addition to providing a social and cultural connection for student veterans, Operation Veteran Freedom will work to further the interests of veterans both on campus and in society. Meeks said the seeking and applying for benefits can often prove daunting to young veterans.

“Once you’re separated [from the military], you don’t get a lot of help,” he said. “Some Veterans often have to pursue a lot of that information on their own.”

Verdugo worked in degree requirements, the campus office that administers GI Bill and other veterans’ programs at Portland State. As a result, he said he knows a lot about the paperwork involved and wanted to help other former military students navigate the system to receive the benefits to which they are entitled.

“We should have been empowering ourselves from the get-go,” Verdugo said. “Now we can empower ourselves through knowledge. We can create togetherness.”

The founders of the group stressed that they have no political affiliation. Verdugo, however, saw reclaiming the voices of veterans from politicians as part of their empowerment. “The Republicans think they represent veterans. I’ve seen it on their posters. This should be more multicultural. It should be one of the most diverse groups on campus. We all come from different spots, and different services.”

From the day they leave the Armed Forces, veterans have 10 years to use their education benefits. “A lot of them are now thinking about how important it is to use those benefits,” Hill said.

One of the fastest-growing veterans’ programs is Vocational Rehabilitation, a benefit for veterans who have been injured in some way, either physically or psychologically. Designed to retrain injured veterans for new, nonmilitary professions, Voc. Rehab covers the cost of books, tuition, parking and student fees. Injured veterans also receive a small stipend.

“We’re seeing an increase in these students,” Hill said. “We have between 75 and 100 Voc. Rehab students now.”

Hill said she believes that Operation Veteran Freedom will provide an important resource for veterans at Portland State. “Quite of few of these students don’t realize where they can go and what they can do, and our office doesn’t handle that sort of thing. Veterans have to do their own research. This group should be able to provide some of that information. And they’ll do it with straight talk.”