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.

Families struggle to cope with multiple deployments

By Sebastian Zotoff

Army Staff Sergeant Kelli Kerber first deployed to Iraq in 2007, leaving behind her three children, their goodbyes said at their grandmother’s house in Slidell, Louisiana.

Kerber’s two youngest children were too young to realize what it meant for their mother to be deployed. Gabrielle, her oldest child, in some context, did understand.

“She thought that I had chosen to leave them, she wouldn’t speak to me, she was very sullen, and just angry,” Kerber said.

Today, with the faint memory of those days, Gabrielle, now 15, says, “I just didn’t realize why she had the go.”

Army Staff Sergeant Kelli Kerber, her husband, Army Staff Sergeant Christopher Kerber and her three children (from left to right) Gabrielle, Layla and Troy celebrate their mother and stepfather's return from Iraq.

Army Staff Sergeant Kelli Kerber, her husband, Army Staff Sergeant Christopher Kerber and her three children (from left to right) Gabrielle, Layla and Troy celebrate their mother and stepfather’s return from Iraq.

Kerber, 36, is one of more than 280,000 female veterans who have since returned home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, about 12 percent of whom were single mothers while serving in the military.

For Kerber, that meant leaving her children with their grandmother so she could serve as an X-Ray technician in the MEDCOM unit in Baghdad.

“The third day I was there was the first time we had traumatic amputations” she said vividly recounting what she saw.  When the medical evacuation call came through, Kerber started to prepare herself, adding, “The mental part is what kills you.”

In one particular incident in February 2007, Kerber described an explosion in which  “a female suicide bomber had gone to a playground where kids were playing soccer and detonated herself – so our hospital was full of kids.”

The children, “with this tremendous look of confusion,” were about the same age as her own, she said.

In late 2012, Kerber was deployed a second time – to the American Embassy in Baghdad. “The second time it wasn’t nearly as bad as when I deployed the first time” Kerber said.

It’s been four months since she returned from her second tour in Iraq and for the first time, she and her children are living far from a military base in a Surprise, Ariz. suburban home. Her children Gabby, Layla and Troy are now 15, 13 and 11 years old.

Kerber originally joined the Army reserves to pay for a college education but transferred to active-duty following Hurricane Katrina. “The day it [Hurricane Katrina} hit, August 29th, 2005 was Gabrielle’s birthday,” Kerber said.

After five days of living with friends in Georgia, Kerber and her three children returned home to find a tree torn out of the ground and laying through the walls of her home.

“What wasn’t damaged by water, was damaged by mildew and mold and it just had horrible stench – so it wasn’t livable at that point. I know they were going to repair it but I had these three little kids looking at me with five days worth of clothes – and that was all that we had,” she said.

“We lost everything [in Katrina], “ she said with her southern twang. Her mother’s house was flooded and their house destroyed.

The only option the Army reserve soldier and single mother saw as a solution was to enlist in active-duty, even with a high likelihood of deployment.

Kerber already was separated from the children’s father, but both were deployed to Iraq.

“You know, you have expectations of what home is going to be like when you return, but that’s where you fail,” she says.

When Kerber first came home, she described how detached she felt from her children: “I remember going to the grocery store and thinking; I don’t even know these kids. I knew them as babies.”

According to experts and doctors, the longer the parent is apart from their child, the more problems the child is likely to experience. In a study conducted by the National Institute of Health, three-fourths of veteran families have reported problems in the home – such as children acting afraid of their parents or having difficulty expressing affection.

Kerber calls her kids strong and resilient for going through what they went through, “Things that would be a catastrophe to most kids – [Kerber’s children] think whatever.”

Kerber is now married to another veteran of the Iraq war, Staff Sgt. Chris Kerber, an Army recruiter.

She says she has worked through the stresses and images of a war hospital, where she helped save Iraqi children and fellow soldiers’ lives. Kerber now is attending Arizona State University, working toward another college degree.

But she can still rattle off the name of the first American soldier she saw die in the hospital.

“His name was James Ellis, he was 24-years-old and he was from Valdosta, Georgia,” she said.

She also saw a fellow service woman die, a nurse who worked with her in the hospital. The woman was crossing the street to go to the gym when a barrage of rockets struck the area around the hospital. Soon to be married, she died in the trauma room.

“My heart just sank,” Kerber said.

Army chaplain helps military families affected by suicide

By Erin Kennedy

In the midst of sleep during a 2012 deployment to Kuwait, Army Chaplain (Capt.) Doug Windley was awoken by a call from the Red Cross informing him that the brother of one of his soldiers had been murdered back home.

Army Chaplain (Capt.) Doug Windley, shown here in Kandahar, served with the North Carolina National Guard in Kuwait, Afghanistan and Qatar.

Army Chaplain (Capt.) Doug Windley, shown here in Kandahar, served with the North Carolina National Guard in Kuwait, Afghanistan and Qatar.

Windley, of the North Carolina National Guard, left his tent at 3:00 a.m. to wake the soldier, one of many times in the chaplain’s career that he was called upon to deliver grim news.

“I’ve never found a phrase or words that have the power to take away someone’s pain,” Windley said. “Just being present with them and not leaving them alone is the best thing to do.”

Windley’s experiences as a military chaplain in North Carolina and on deployment in Kuwait, Afghanistan and Qatar have brought him to his work as a staff associate of the Survivor Care Team at Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS).

TAPS, based out of Arlington, Va., is a 24/7 program that helps people who have experienced the death of a loved one in the military, regardless of their relationship to the individual who passed away.

As a chaplain on deployment, Windley served as a pastor for soldiers overseas. He performed religious services for soldiers who followed Christianity, as he did, and provided a place of worship for soldiers of other religions as well. Since returning to North Carolina at the end of 2012, Windley continues his work by marrying soldiers, being there for the birth of a soldier’s child, attending soldiers’ funerals, and helping soldiers adjust to life at home after returning from deployment.

“There are three phrases I always keep in the back of my mind as a chaplain: nurture the living, care for the wounded and honor the dead,” Windley said.

At TAPS, Windley provides support and care to those left behind after a suicide by helping them through their grieving.

Since 2010, suicide has been the second-leading cause of death for service members, with war injuries at number one, the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center (AFHSC) found.

According to data collected over eight months by Arizona State University’s News21, veterans are killing themselves at more than double the rate of the civilian population with about 49,000 taking their own lives between 2005 and 2011.

Records from 48 states show the annual suicide rate among veterans is about 30 for every 100,000 of the population, compared to a civilian rate of about 14 per 100,000. The suicide rate among veterans increased an average 2.6 percent a year from 2005 to 2011, or more than double that of the 1.1 percent civilian rate, according to News21’s analysis.

Like TAPS, Cheryle Phelan, suicide prevention coordinator at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Prescott, Ariz., helps connect survivors with other survivors. When a veteran suicide occurs in the region of northern Arizona, Phelan calls the family to give them contact information for survivors in regional suicide groups.

“It’s different when someone dies from cancer or a different disease,” Phelan said. “When someone dies of suicide, family and friends are always thinking ‘What should I have done?’ ”

By connecting a newer survivor with someone such as an older veteran spouse affected by a military suicide in the past, the newer survivor learns how to cope better and is assured they can make it through the death, Phelan says.

“With suicide, it’s important that the survivors are around people that can really empathize with them,” Phelan said.

Windley refers to the process of new people and organizations offering support to survivors as the “address book changing.”

“Suicide is an enigma to many people,” Windley said. “I want to run to them to help in the moment; I want to run toward the fire.”

NBCUniversal and U.S. Chamber of Commerce Launch Website for Vets

NBCUniversal and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce launched “Next Steps for Vets” yesterday, a website hosted by that aims to help veterans find employment and further education through various resources like a guide to starting small businesses, job fair maps, a resume tool, and more, according to NBCUniversal. Read more.

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.