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Student organization for veterans started at Longwood

October 20, 2014

Greg Serwo

A Longwood University student organization for veterans has been launched by a student who served in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Marines.

Greg Serwo started Longwood Student Veterans to help smooth the transition from soldier to student life. The organization, according to its mission statement, "coordinates campus activities, advocates for student veterans’ concerns regarding policy, promotes pre-professional networking, and generally provides a touchstone for student veterans pursuing higher education at Longwood." Specifically, its organizers are working to establish a network of resources for student veterans, a "24/7" crisis counseling service and a web site to help veterans understand their benefits under the Montgomery GI Bill and the new Post-9/11 Benefits Act.

"We’re trying to provide a consolidated network of services available to people getting out of the military and coming to Longwood, especially those with physical injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)," said Serwo. "The transition to college is always difficult, and these disabilities can make it even more challenging for veterans."

The organization has developed a web site (longwoodstudentveterans.org) and held its first meeting Sept. 24, attended by about 10 students and four faculty members, two of whom are veterans. Early estimates indicate that about 45 to 50 students are veterans. "We’re trying to spread the word about the organization," Serwo said. "There are not many comprehensive student veteran organizations on college campuses in Virginia; most are in California and the Midwest. The only one I know of in the East is at Penn State."

Susan Stinson, adjunct instructor in English, and Mary Carroll-Hackett, director of the Creative Writing program, are the organization’s faculty advisers.

"What we need, in addition to a veterans’ affairs presence on campus, includes training and manpower assistance for folks in various administrative offices, outreach programming for faculty on the issues returning veterans face, and 24/7 crisis counseling services, which is a must for this population," Stinson said. "The suicide rate for those deployed is double that of the average population. We’re seeing a lot of students who return (from overseas military service) initially do well academically, but unfortunately, as other campuses have found, some of these soldier-students are committing suicide. There’s a lot of folks suffering in silence with PTSD, and the Veterans Administration (VA) doesn’t have enough staff to accommodate everyone.

"We’re a peer-to-peer organization helping people with transition issues before college, during college and after college," she continued. "We seek to set up an infrastructure, to create a streamlined system for veterans. At the moment we don’t have one person who can streamline information about what needs to be done by veterans attending college. They have to fill out a lot of forms, both for Longwood and the military, some of which can be confusing and really hard to find. The source material isn’t written down in any one location. It’s a game of seek-and-find with literally hundreds of web sites to search. We need one particular office that can advocate for this population.

"Their concerns are often different from those of their classmates. For example, Longwood freshmen are not allowed to have cars. So if you’re a veteran, how do you get to the VA office in Charlottesville, Roanoke or Richmond? Also, one veteran said he was having a hard time concentrating because he was used to a different environment. For most students, it’s a bummer if the battery on their iPod goes dead. In a combat situation, however, if a soldier’s battery goes dead on patrol, it could be a matter of life or death. These students have a tremendously different worldview."

Serwo echoed the statement about veterans being unlike other students. "A lot of veterans just go home after class and sit in their apartment because, being older, they’re not going to go to an on-campus party. I’ve heard horror stories of friends getting out of the Marines and having problems dealing with the lack of a sound infrastructure for vets in college. Sometimes they just hit brick walls."

The Longwood Student Veterans group has received guidance and support from Martha Mead of the Virginia Department of Veterans Services’ Virginia Wounded Warrior Program, which is coordinating support services for veterans with stress-related and traumatic brain injuries from combat. According to the program’s web site, more than 30 percent of returning service personnel "have a mental health condition or reported experiencing a traumatic brain injury. Virginia’s share of this serious health concern comes to more than 50,000 veterans over the next 20 years. Considering the impact on spouses and children, the number increases to 200,000 during the same period."

The organization also has been working with William Edwards, an aide to U.S. Sen. James Webb, who was one of the main sponsors of the Post-9/11 Veterans Education Assistance Act, also called the new GI Bill, which will take effect in August 2009. The bill will provide benefits more generous than the current one, including a housing allowance. 

Serwo and the advisers have discussed veteran-related issues at Longwood with the Care Team, the Academic and Career Advising Center, the Financial Aid, Registrar’s and the Dean of Students’ offices, and President Patricia Cormier and Dr. Ken Perkins, executive assistant to the president for student success. "All of them are very supportive when it comes to veteran issues," said Stinson. 

Serwo, 27, a native of the Boston suburb of Boxford, Mass., transferred to Longwood in August 2007 after serving in the Marines for eight years and four months. His last post was the Quantico base in Northern Virginia, and, in addition to serving Iraq in 2003 and Afghanistan in 2004, he also was stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and in Washington, D.C. He is a senior majoring in political science (global politics concentration) with a minor in homeland security. Now a staff sergeant in the Air National Guard, he will leave for a year of training in December after finishing the fall semester, then return for the spring 2010 semester to graduate. He plans to go into government service.

"This is a good opportunity for Longwood," Stinson said. "Regardless of politics, these are our students, members of our community, and they have specific needs that we can meet. It’s important to identify these veterans and just say ‘Welcome home’ and to identify their spouses and dependents and say ‘This community can assist you.’ It’s a personal issue, a college issue and a community issue."