By Christy Womack
Murfreesboro is known as a community that loves to serve others. Everywhere you look within our community, good people are reaching out to help others. The veteran community, our military brothers and sisters, have each been specially called to serve others, by serving the families of the United States, even at the expense of their own families. Their sacrifice is overwhelming, and our understanding, or lack thereof, of the challenges they face both while in uniform and upon transitioning back into the “real world” is insufficient.
MTSU saw the need to serve these men and women even before the creation of the original GI Bill—the Serviceman Readjustment Act of 1944. Examples of this early commitment to the military can still be seen on campus. For instance, the hangar which housed planes used to train WWII pilots remains in the center of campus, though now repurposed as a gym for current ROTC Cadets. Street signs labeled Military Memorial are not just a nod to the hangar and the location of where current day Cadets are trained but also an area formerly known as Veterans Village—a portion of campus which back in the day was home to returning GIs and their families who wished to go to school after the conclusion of the war. This type of attention to the military, veterans, and their families is simply part of MTSU’s DNA. And it is what placed MTSU light years ahead of other schools when the new Post 9/11 GI Bill went into effect in 2009, a bill that provided additional and greater educational benefits to veterans.
Dr. Hilary Miller, Director of the Charlie and Hazel Daniels Veterans and Military Family Center (the Daniels Center) talks about her early involvement with MTSU and veteran causes. “We (MTSU) have always been motivated completely differently than most schools,” says Dr. Miller. “For us it has never been about money. It’s all about moving the veteran into this new life seamlessly. Our goal is to get them to the right place, even if they don’t have any educational benefits at all.”
“My brother is a marine, and I married Lt. Colonel Joel Miller, so my passion, our family passion, has always been military focused. I worked on Operation Helmet at MTSU and even won an award of $3,000 for my efforts. I put half that money immediately back into MTSU’s Veterans Memorial, but the way I looked at it, I still owed the university a debt.”
Dr. Miller went to work within MTSU serving the needs of veterans. In November of 2014, she asked Lt. Gen. Keith M. Huber, who had recently retired from the U.S. Army after almost 40 years of service, to come speak. He accepted the invitation, but insisted that he give an entire day of his time to speak to a multitude of different groups. MTSU President Dr. Sidney A. McPhee was impressed. He immediately wanted the three star general to become a part of the staff at MTSU.
The General was not interested in being window dressing, but he did agree to come study the needs of the student veterans at MTSU to determine how he might be able to help. What he found was a university that was committed to serving veterans, even though they didn’t have a physical location from which to do that. In those days, there was a veterans’ lounge and a social community, a “virtual veterans’ center,” but they were limited by the lack of a dedicated space from which to operate. General Huber signed on in January 2015 as the senior advisor for veterans and leadership initiatives. Huber is the highest-ranking retired officer serving in such a role among all of Tennessee’s public and private higher education institutions.
Dr. McPhee said Huber’s “vast military experience, his ability to tackle and excel in often challenging situations and his devotion to the men and women who have served our nation in our Armed Forces give him a unique perspective and the tools necessary to help us become a national leader in veteran education.”
Ever the gentleman, the three star general is not what one might expect a man of his rank to be. Dr. Miller might describe him best. “He is all about serving others. I’m all about asking of others, so we make a nice combination.” In my time with him, General Huber was ever the gentleman, noticing every detail, speaking to each student, searching for needs to fill. He is humble and kind, yet he has a quiet authority about him that illustrates that he was born to lead. And led he has.
Within four months of General Huber signing on with MTSU, he had secured commitments from the institution for a physical Veterans Center. Additionally, he began working with Charlie Daniels, the country music legend whose nonprofit organization, The Journey Home Project, was focused on veterans’ needs. They too were committed to helping MTSU in a significant way serve student veterans. And just before Veterans Day of 2015, MTSU’s Veterans and Military Family Center opened. By August of 2016 it was renamed the Charlie and Hazel Daniels Veterans and Military Family Center. It is the largest and most comprehensive veterans facility at a public or private university in Tennessee.
Charlie Daniels has been committed throughout his life to veterans issues and he was proud to be a part of the new center. “I’m almost 80 years old, and I remember the day Pearl Harbor was bombed. I’ve been a patriot all my life. I learned early in my life that only two things protected America, the grace of Almighty God and the United States Military. It was that way then, it is that way now and will forever be that way as long as America remains a free and sovereign nation. We owe our vets an unpayable debt of gratitude when they come home,” says Daniels.
It is at the Charles and Hazel Daniels Veterans and Military Family Center that Dr. Miller and her staff, including two Veterans Administration employees, accomplish their mission. “We certainly work with veterans to determine what educational benefits they have earned, and we work with faculty and students to ensure a smooth transition educationally. But our mission is so much more than that. It is all encompassing. We understand that if you have issues, no matter what kind of issues, until resolved, they will keep you from being a good student.”
And so the services provided at the Daniels Center are broad. From flu shots to legal clinics, from getting backlogged benefits paid to helping veterans through the pay gap that exists between military service and educational benefits, from healthcare issues to job placement, the staff at the center make themselves available for every need. But perhaps the most important benefit of the center is the social community that has developed. Like-minded individuals with a deep commitment to serve their country and others can come and gather at the center, knowing that not only are there people there who understand them, but who are unique, each possessing talents and abilities that they are more than willing to share with their military brothers and sisters.
“We know who is good at what,” explains Gwen Owens, a senior at MTSU who currently serves in the reserves and in her 11 years of military service served as an operating room technician.
“We are military. We do not want to admit any weakness, but at the Center, we can be comfortable knowing that we can use this resource. It’s so much less intimidating to ask a question here.”
Graeme Young, a retired US Army veteran who is in his first semester at MTSU, concurs. “We all come from different branches of the military. We may have had a different MOS from someone else, but we all raised our right hand and swore to support and defend the US Constitution. Everyone has their own reasons for wanting to serve in the military, but the common thread is that we are all people who want to serve others. I don’t want anything handed to me. I appreciate the challenge of being a nontraditional student, but I want to earn my degree.”
Shanika Willis is in her final year in MTSU’s ROTC program and will graduate in May with graduate degrees in chemistry and business administration. She currently serves in the National Guard, but she is just embarking on her formal military career. “I love being able to rely on the knowledge and experience of other veterans,” says Willis. “I have not yet been deployed, so I have so many questions. I love listening to their stories. I think I’ll be better prepared to serve for having known them.”
“Some of us would have never met if it were not for the Center,” said Owens. “It’s a space issue really. The physical space is important, so that we can gather on a daily basis. The loyalty bond between members of the military cannot be overdramatized. It’s a very supportive community.”
“We are a special breed,” says Young. “We have to have each other’s backs. It’s how we were trained.”
“Coming from Jamaica, I like being in a close knit community,” says Willis. “My friends who went to other universities don’t experience that closeness. When I tell them I was chatting with a three star general, they can’t believe it. I was here for a semester before I joined the ROTC program, and it was a big culture shock, but it’s totally different in the center. These are real people. We can find help on almost anything.”
“We can assist veterans find help throughout the community. We can show them where they can get furniture or food, or help with their resume,” says Dr. Miller. “It’s training for ‘real’ life.”
“If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a whole support system to assist a veteran in transition,” explains Young. “The center is that ‘one stop shop’ for veterans. Veterans are doing themselves a disservice if they don’t take advantage of this resource. Not every school has a center. But coming back to school and being a part of the center here has been a part of the healing process for me.”
“Every day I’m here I feel like I’m learning to be a better person,” said Owens who as a speech pathology/audiology major is a student clinician within MTSU Speech Center. “I apply things I learn here at the Daniels Center every day in my real life, sometimes even in the same day!”
Perhaps the uniqueness of this community is that it is a group of people who have been held to the highest standard. The military is successful because there are clear lines of command, and almost is never good enough. There are always people depending upon you, and you must perform at the highest level. So you can imagine that suddenly reintegrating into a school filled with very young people without structure or discipline could cause great anxiety for the recent veteran. Add to that PTSD triggers that most of us don’t understand, like a need to sit where they can see all threats, and it’s clear there are challenges for the student veteran.
“When you leave a war zone and you come into an academic surrounding, when you are surrounded by people whose biggest concern is their grade on a test and you’ve been dodging bullets, you can feel like no one can relate. I know I like to get together with musicians. They know what it’s like to live on the road – all the joys and discomforts of life on the road – no one else can relate,” said Charlie Daniels. “It’s the same way for veterans but their needs are much more serious.”
A supportive administration makes all the difference. “General Huber is one hell of a man,” said Daniels. “He is constantly searching for ways to help his veterans. They are always on his mind. There is no bigger advocate for veterans than him. And Dr. McPhee really championed this thing from the beginning. He bent over backwards to implement the veterans program. He found us an ideal space on a very busy campus to put the center. He truly has a heart for veterans.”
And that commitment filters down throughout the faculty and staff of MTSU. Faculty and staff members who are veterans themselves proudly display stickers on their doors and on their cars to recognize that they do understand these challenges. Gwen Owens is currently working with another student veteran and students in the English department who are writing scripts, to be acted out by the theater students, demonstrating real life vignettes that highlight the challenges that veterans face. The “plays” will be recorded on video for faculty members to watch.
“This is a veteran friendly campus,” says Owens. “And the faculty craves the information. We’ll recognize the faculty that watches the videos. You can see that if you know they took their own time to better serve you as a veteran, it would lessen some of your anxiety.”
The leadership at MTSU is committed to continuously improving the life of the student veteran, and the crux of that effort emanates from the Daniels Center. Dr. Miller states her mission well, “These are people who have given their lives to service. My job is to direct them through all obstacles to help them find a new way to serve.”