A new mission: A&M center helps vets navigate college life
When Texas A&M Interim President Mark Hussey signed a resolution on Oct. 29 to designate the school as a “Purple Heart University,” A&M became just one of several colleges across the country to be recognized by the Military Order of the Purple Heart for such a distinction.
So much of Texas A&M’s history is grounded in its military tradition of graduating hundreds of cadets every year to become officers, but the Purple Heart University honor will help bolster that tradition by recognizing military veterans who attend the university, of which there are 1,066, including at least eight Purple Heart recipients. As a Purple Heart University, Texas A&M will be sponsored by the MOPH chapter in Austin.
The designation will help improve the Texas A&M Veterans Resource and Support Center’s on-campus presence as a vital resource to assist veterans’ transition from military to academic life and find tailored resources and programs for veterans.
Texas A&M has taken in and supported returning military veterans since 1919, but since the center opened its doors in 2012, it has helped more than 250 prospective student veterans a month look at the university. If they decide on A&M, the center helps them find a major, guides them academically and works with the career center to find them employment to put their military and new academic skills to use to establish themselves in the workforce. It provides the same services for more than 2,000 Texas A&M family members of active, retired or deceased military personnel.
The center also holds outreach seminars each semester for faculty and staff to provide training on how to interact with the school’s veterans and what to expect from them. But, perhaps most importantly, it identifies the veterans who embody A&M’s core values, according to center Director Col. Jerry Smith.
“When we opened the office, we didn’t have any programs on campus that worked to recognize vets for their service and sacrifice to our country,” Smith said. “Our center will constantly extend Texas A&M’s military-friendly legacy by identifying and developing resources and programs to our current and former military dependants, survivors and families to enrich their development and overall academic success.”
Today, a veteran-of-the-month program and a faculty and staff recognition program spotlight student veterans during sporting events and red, white and blue cords are worn by veterans at graduation that fulfill the goal of recognition, which the MOPH honor amplifies.
“We put a lot of people in the military through the Corps and I think we need to carry that through to recognize the selfless service and sacrifice especially after 13 years of war,” Smith said. “Anything we can do to recognize their service is consistent with the core values of Texas A&M and continuing our military heritage and legacy.”
Once the center helps get veterans on track with their paperwork, it is time to step back and watch them grow.
“One of the things I learned in the first year is a lot of people want to focus on student veteran challenges,” Smith said. “A campus environment is very different from the military. We don’t want to focus just on their challenges, but what we need to do is focus on their strengths. When you look at the strengths in leadership skills, maturity, experiences, focus, those kinds of strengths make them great students, and if we help take care of their strengths, they can take care of their challenges all on their own.”
The center is operated with the help of four additional full-time administrators, admissions councilors and nine veteran student workers that include two two-time Purple Heart recipients Peter Michelena and Austin Howard, who were both admitted into Texas A&M with the help of the center while on active duty in Afghanistan.
Injuries in combat
Michelena, a 25-year-old biology and agricultural engineering major, joined the Marine Corps out of high school at the age of 18 and finished serving in 2013. During his five years with the Marines, he carried out regular seek out, close with and destroy missions. Two of those missions resulted in Purple Hearts.
Michelena was attempting to leave from a conflict area after a raid in September 2010 when a roadside bomb detonated while he was riding in the point vehicle.
“It’s one of those situations where you pick a road and hope it’s not the one and we picked wrong,” he said.
No one was killed by the roadside bomb and Michelena escaped with shrapnel injuries to his right arm and leg. He rested for one week in the field to heal by not going on patrols, but resumed duty after he recovered. Just six weeks later he received his second Purple Heart.
His patrol’s mission on Oct. 25, 2010, was to clear an opium facility. According to Michelena, the Taliban raises money for operations by forcing Afghan farmers to grow poppies, which are converted into heroin and sold around the world.
“We started the day off like any other day and sometimes you get that sixth sense when you know something is off,” he said. “You know in the back of your mind at some point it’s going to happen. There could be a bomb on the ground anywhere.”
His best friend in the unit, Todd Love, was attempting to enter the facility while walking five meters in front of Michelena when he stepped on an IED. Love survived the explosion, but lost both his legs and part of his left arm. Love has since gone on to win Internet fame for competing in Tough Mudder and Spartan races. Michelena again survived, sustaining shrapnel injuries to his face, back damage and a traumatic brain injury that he says “makes studying interesting sometimes” as a student.
Howard, a married 28-year-old father and animal science major, received two Purple Hearts as a result of his seven-and-a-half years of service, but will return to the military once he is commissioned as an officer through Texas A&M upon graduation. His initial wound, like Michelena’s, did not deter him from returning to active duty.
While out on a seek, close with and destroy mission in Afghanistan in May 2012, an Afghan woman and her three children were caught in the middle of a firefight. Howard moved in to push them to safety into a nearby river, but was hit with a rocket explosion. He escaped the blast with minor injuries thanks to the inconsistent nature of rockets. Howard said they can detonate within arm’s length and cause no harm, or explode meters away from a person and rip them to pieces.
“It’s a crappy day is what it all boils down to,” he said. “You can’t control what a rocket does. At least when someone is shooting at you, you can mitigate that threat, but rockets, they have a mind of their own.”
He returned to the field after a short recovery period and earned his second Purple Heart in August 2012 just over 1,000 meters from where he earned his first. When the weapon of one of the men in his patrol malfunctioned due to damage from shrapnel, he took a bullet to the foot that caused him to lose his pinkie toe, for which he later earned a Purple Heart. Because the soldier could not defend himself, Howard gave him cover by lying on top of him, where he took his own bullet wound in the process.
Because he didn’t tell his wife about the first injury, he used the time off from the second injury to tell her about it over a borrowed satellite phone while in a medevac tent.
“I said, ‘Hey, so it turns out I’m going to be home sooner than you thought,’” he said.
The lasting impact his wounds had on Howard is the traumatic brain injury.
All of the center’s veteran staff apply the value of selfless service they showed in the line of duty to their mission of outreach and recognition they do for fellow veterans on the A&M campus.
“Bringing the Military Order of the Purple Heart in is just another way we can say Texas A&M is committed to our veterans, we’re committed to our tradition, which is we serve in war,” Howard said. “That’s what we do as Aggies and that’s what we’ve always done and a tip of the cap should be that.”
Taking a bullet for a brother in fatigues and guiding a fellow veteran all the way through to graduation aren’t different in the eyes of the staff. The duties in the job description need to be carried out no matter what they are, according to Michelena.
“It’s all part of the job,” he said. “If you think of it as a brotherhood or what you do for your family and they’re in a situation where they’re in trouble, you don’t think about yourself. You think about the person next to you and do what you need to do in order to do your mission.”
©2014 The Eagle (Bryan, Texas)
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