By Charles Whatley
Recently, the Veteran Resources Office (VRO) at the University of Alaska Fairbanks was closed. At the close of business on September 8th, the VVA Veteran Service Officer and his assistants who staffed it had been forced to vacate the campus. They have settled in the National Guard recruiting center at University and Airport Way, and continue their mission of helping Interior Veterans. The purpose of establishing the VRO on campus, is to provide a place for Student Veterans to gather sociably, in a “safe space” with people who understand our unique situations. By removing the VRO office from campus, this asset is denied us, and the quality of life for UAF’s 900-strong Student Veteran community is degraded immensely. Who is the designated point of contact for, say, GI Bill issues? The financial aid office handles that, and Ms. Speed does well, but answering questions is not her primary job. Any time devoted to covering for an absence is time spent not doing something else. Recently, at the new student orientation, I spoke with incoming Student Veterans, and outlined what I could do for them to enhance their experience at UAF. Later that same day, one of those Veterans came into the VRO, seeking help finding a place to live. We were able to help find her somewhere in less than 30 minutes, due solely to the outstanding presence Mr. Crary has with local Veteran organizations and the personal relationships that come along with being an active member of the community.
Many Student Veterans receive their VA healthcare at the Chief Andrew Isaac clinic downtown, and their doctor recently moved out of state. I was able to find out the procedure for ensuring VA patients continue to access medical treatment, and wrote up a step-by-step procedure for those unfamiliar. I sent that notice out through Mr. Crary, and it would be prominently posted in the VRO office, if it still existed. Now, instead of local Veterans having a localized place to share information and camaraderie, every individual must find things out for themselves, and there is no widely publicized place that can fill this role. This has strained the abilities of the work-study students to meet their obligations, as there is reduced traffic at their new location, and they must travel off-campus to work. The result of the slow traffic of veterans into the new office has created the potential loss of their work-study job. To wit: if there is not enough bang for the buck, the VA will pull the plug on their contracts; and the current location so far has not been cooperating. In addition to the increased strain this has placed on UAF staff, Student Veterans, and local Veterans in general, this was not something discussed beforehand.
I am part of a working group within UAF that is looking to draw more Veterans to the Interior, to get their education and stay to economically drive the state forward. The statistics are there, I’ve located them and they all say the same thing: Veterans are a boon for any community, but especially one that depends on small local businesses to succeed. That is Fairbanks in a nutshell, and frankly, this undermining of my efforts is both insulting and shortsighted. I have put in hundreds of hours working towards making the UAF-Veteran relationship better on both micro and macro levels. There have been numerous proposals myself and others, to include the entire VRO staff, have pored over, that all would have produced nothing but good things for the university and the community as a whole. Now, with no efforts being made to reinstate, or even replace, this key component of a successful Student Veteran experience, the future is uncertain. Multiple papers, tons of anecdotal evidence, and plain common sense would dictate that having a place to relax and unwind is good. However, I (and every Student Veteran I’ve talked to) don’t feel comfortable doing so with the standard UAF student, most of whom are unaware of military procedures, experiences, and etiquette. This is not to knock them, but we are simply at different points in our lives, and need different support structures. A question was raised by an SVA officer to me the other day, he asked “So…what happens when someone has a bad PTSD episode now?” And that’s a damn good question. Before, there was somewhere to go within 5 minutes, or a phone number that could have someone come meet you if needed. In fact, on several occasions Walter E Crary VVA VSO personally took care of each individual and made sure each got the help they needed. Now? Presumably the plan is to hope there’s another Vet in class or nearby and they’ll be able to help. This is to say nothing of the non-student Veterans who frequented the office, and are apparently no longer doing so. Do their issues and concerns still exist, and if so, what sort of help are they getting now, if any?
So, the questions of the hour are, simply: Why did this happen? What is the plan moving forward, to reinstate the position (even if a different person sits in the chair)? Is the university actually going to move forward on their Initiative that people have spent over a year crafting, specifically to make UAF and the Interior attractive to Veterans? The lack of answers to these questions, especially as they spring readily to mind, smacks of this being at least partially a personal and/or political maneuver. My fellow Veterans and I deserve better, we are political capital enough in DC, thank you. Mr. Crary’s office has been empty for 3 weeks now, and the loss of his office, the effective staffing by students, for students, and the institutional knowledge represented is going to be lost if nothing changes. More and more colleges across the country are moving in a direction of increasing Veteran support and educational offerings. UAF is the only one I know of that is taking the opposite course. In this time of increased fiscal uncertainty, the only thing this will naturally inspire, is people to go elsewhere.