Student veterans turn to campus groups for help adjusting to college

By Dominick DiFurio

Training, reflexes and anger flowed into Devon Caballero-Zarate the day he had an altercation with his ex-wife’s boyfriend, using his tattoo-smothered forearms to twist the man’s wrist, intent on breaking it.

Fellow veteran Jordan Sherwood (right) talks with Mesa Community College student Devon Caballero-Zarate (left) about switching into a more suitable class.

Fellow veteran Jordan Sherwood (right) talks with Mesa Community College student Devon Caballero-Zarate (left) about switching into a more suitable class.

“I just reacted,” Zarate recalled, saying he also smashed the boyfriend’s head into a car windshield before the Las Vegas Police Department showed up.

Zarate was a special purpose mechanic stationed in Kadena, Japan, from 2001 until 2003 when he was discharged. His post-service disabilities stem from non-combat related incidents, particularly the murder of his father while Zarate was serving overseas.

“I snapped… plain and simple, I snapped.”

His father’s death sent Zarate into a psychological state that his superiors thought gave enough reason to send him back home permanently, Zarate said.

He now studies at Mesa Community College, hungry to have his hands on a four-year degree in the near future.

“Being a soldier, the military, that was my world… that meant everything to me,” Zarate said.

Many student veterans, like Zarate, say their military experiences leave them feeling differently than other college students, and so they turn to organizations like the Student Veterans of America to help them.

SVA is a national organization with 883 chapters across the United States. These chapters assist veterans in their transition into the college environment, some of whom suffer from post-traumatic stress and are juggling school with demanding lives. They have families and some have jobs.

Jordan Sherwood, a former member of the SVA chapter at Mesa Community College, says there’s more to life for student veterans than “going to class for the day and then going home, calling up your buddies and partying… I mean there’s always that too,” he joked.

Veterans groups on campus are a place for these students to connect with other veterans.

The Veterans Club at Arizona State University, where Zarate attended school prior to MCC, provides opportunities for members to come together through community service, social events, one-on-one guidance, and political activism.

At an October ASU Tempe Veterans Club meeting, members congregated in the evening over a couple boxes of Papa John’s pizza. Its president, Walter Tillman, runs through his agenda in front of a dozen veterans, discussing political issues, community service and social events.

As a veteran, Tillman is active in Arizona politics and encourages members of the club to reach out to elected officials and voice their opinions about student veteran issues. Recently he worked with Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat from Arizona, to push several bills that would further veterans benefits.

“It’s kind of in our best interest,” Tillman elaborated.

Joanna Sweatt is the Military Advocate at Arizona State University and is skeptical of mixing politics and veteran support. Sweatt is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and works one-on-one with veterans that need assistance at school or who simply need some company.

“Politics are stressful, no matter how much passion you have for them,” she said.

Sweatt says that she sees more successful veterans emerge from support groups that focus on service and support.

MCC also has a significant veteran population. The MCC chapter president Brian Dozier says he prefers to focus on brotherhood.

Zarate, for example, missed three days of school after his altercation in Las Vegas. He had trouble communicating his situation to teachers and was able to go to Sherwood for help. Sherwood also happens to be an employee at the Office of Veteran Services at MCC. He took Zarate under his wing, helping him communicate to teachers his struggles. He also assisted in getting Zarate into more suitable classes.

“I’ve been there,” Sherwood said of Zarate’s situation.

Sherwood also served in the military and got himself through a two-year degree. He’s now working on a Bachelor’s degree. He says he understands the complicated scenarios of fellow veterans, adding that student veterans join the club to find help with exactly these scenarios.

“We’re all fighting the battle to assimilate back into civilian life,” MCC veterans club member Ted Morrison added.

Post-9/11 veteran creates smartphone app

By Anthony Cave, News21

At the memorial for a fellow Marine, Iraq and Afghanistan combat veteran Jacob Wood happened into several Marines who he didn’t know lived nearby.

As they gathered to honor a Marine who served in combat with Wood, but committed suicide in March 2011 shortly after coming home, Wood saw the need for them to connect.  That gave Wood the idea for Position Report (POS REP), a smartphone application that connects veterans via GPS to an interactive social network.

On POS REP, veterans can pop "flares," sharing local events with other connected veterans. (Courtesy of Anthony Allman)

On POS REP, veterans can pop “flares,” sharing local events with other connected veterans. (Courtesy of Anthony Allman)

Wood hopes his app, in a test phase now with more than 4,000 users, can prevent veteran suicides. But he realizes there is no easy solution.

“It’s very complex, there is certainly not any silver bullet to the issue,” he said.

However, POS REP, in Wood’s words, “leverages technology.” It allows veterans to communicate with one another, set up events through location-based “flares” and even list their service record and awards.

Post-9/11 veteran Keith Finkle, 30, has used the app since January. Finkle, who did two tours in Iraq from 2005 to 2009, appreciates the sense of community the app brings.

He used it while finishing a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies in the spring semester at Arizona State University.

Finkle has made initial contact with just one veteran so far, but the access itself is rewarding, he said.

“It was more of a ‘hey, here I am,’” he said. “It’s just good to know that you have that connection, it kind of validates the idea.”

And Wood hopes a federal agency feels the same way. He has shared his app in Washington, trying to garner support.

Meanwhile, Wood projects a full launch in “three to four months.” And Finkle, too, will be ready. “The content is right at the forefront of what we should be trying to do,” he said.

Arizona State Marine veteran fills sandbags in Yarnell

By Anthony Cave, News21

Post-9/11 veteran Luis Camacho (far right) filled "hundreds" of sandbags for Yarnell, Ariz. residents facing potential flash floods. (Courtesy of Luis Camacho)

Post-9/11 veteran Luis Camacho (far right) filled “hundreds” of sandbags for Yarnell, Ariz. residents facing potential flash floods. (Courtesy of Luis Camacho)

Marine Corps veteran Luis Camacho spent more than two years in Iraq, logging three tours of duty from 2004 through 2008; he knows what it is like to fill sandbags.

When he heard that residents of Yarnell, Ariz. – where a raging forest fire killed 19 men June 30 – faced possible flash floods, Camacho, 27, took action.

“If there is something that veterans know about, its filling sandbags,” the public service and public policy major at Arizona State University said.

He used Facebook to ask ASU student veterans to volunteer to take the 90-minute ride north with him over the July 20 weekend. Only one responded, but that did not deter him.

A few Marines were among the fallen Granite Mountain HotShots. Camacho wanted to “honor their memory” through service.

“There’s a brotherhood there. There was that extra incentive to go help out,” he said. “Had they not died, that is the type of work that they would have done for their community – filling up sandbags.”

The two ASU veterans spent nearly six hours, taking a half-hour for lunch, filling “hundreds” of sandbags, he said.

And they were needed. With no vegetation, water and ash from the fire easily could flood houses. Residents took up to 30 sandbags each.

He also met with the Yarnell Fire Department captain and talked to residents.

“Their stories are just heartbreaking, and I’ve experienced a lot more than people should have,” Camacho said, reflecting on his volunteer weekend and his Iraq war experiences.