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From combat to the classroom


For 25-year-old Mark Middlebrook, UNF’s new Military and Veterans Resource Center is a place to volunteer and talk with other vets.


Middlebrook, a history major, attended his first UNF class in the summer of 2009, exactly one week after leaving the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. Middlebrook’s unit helped him complete his veterans’ eligibility paperwork weeks before he processed out, so he arrived at UNF with his benefits in place. Most veterans aren’t so lucky.


Fortunately for the nearly 900 other military veterans enrolled at UNF, the center is available to assist with the transition from a military environment to campus and a successful academic experience. They’re among the more than 240,000 military service members in Florida who became eligible in 2009 to attend college using the new GI bill, and they represent the leading wave of veterans expected on campus in the years ahead.


Members of the post 9/11 group, as they’re called, arrive on university campuses with many unique needs, including help obtaining their veterans’ benefits, counseling to deal with post-traumatic stress, academic advising, assistance maneuvering through a complicated enrollment process, and the transition from the military to campus life.


“This is one of the youngest generations that have gone to war, and they have been reinserted in the combat zone multiple times with very little time to re-transition back each time,” said Cynthia Alderson, director of Military and Veterans Programs and Services at UNF. “Given their young age, very few have developed the life skills that would otherwise help them navigate their combat experiences and deal with the things they’ve been exposed to – the loss of life, the guilt of surviving the loss of a buddy, and the accidental loss of civilian lives – they need more of a leg up. They need more assistance when they come back.”


Middlebrook, a former sergeant who spent part of 2006 participating in air assault missions and most of 2007 conducting raids against the al-Sadr Militia during the Surge in Iraq, said attending his first class “was culture shock, that’s for sure.” He found himself sitting in a classroom nearly filled with recent high school graduates. He said their life experiences were “different from where I’d been living and what I’d been doing and it took some adjusting to.”


“My maturity is way beyond,” he said. Like many combat vets, Middlebrook has little in common with traditional college freshmen, though he holds nothing against them and doesn’t belittle their life experiences.


In the year since taking that “test-the-waters-kind-of-class,” Middlebrook has pushed himself to sit in the middle of the classroom, rather than in an aisle seat in the back where he can keep an eye on the exits and anyone entering the room. Like other combat vets, he remains hyper-vigilant. He maintains a standoff distance from strangers, avoids crowds and pretty much sticks to himself.


“Because they’re in urban warfare they come back very safety-minded, hyper-sensitive,” Alderson said. “Driving down JTB or down the street is a challenge because in a convoy you don’t want anyone next to you, so cars on either side bother them. Stopping at stop signs is a challenge because if you stop, you’re dead. You roll through intersections when you’re over in that environment.”


Alderson said she expects the center to become a campus hub for veterans. For Navy veteran Kristen Stohle, 27, it’s a place to relax and get away from the “normal adolescent chatter” she hears around campus. For Army National Guard veteran Joe Larsen Jr., 44, it’s a place to connect with counterparts closer to his own age, swap stories and learn about benefits.


For his part, Middlebrook is happy UNF has a Military and Veterans Resource Center. It gives him a place to engage in peer-to-peer counseling, which he discovered he enjoyed while helping younger soldiers in the 82nd Airborne after returning from Iraq.


Alderson said the social and peer-to-peer networking at the center is invaluable to veterans. She said the primary thing is to ease that overwhelmed feeling veterans often experience when coming from an environment in which they are told everything to do into one in which they are constantly asked to make decisions. The center is there to help them transition and find normalcy as they navigate the university system.


To help accomplish that, the center serves as a conduit through which veterans are able to access services, but it does not duplicate services already available. Veterans can go to the center for help interacting with the Department of Veterans Affairs, for example, or seek assistance completing admissions, enrollment and financial aid paperwork as well as learn about other university and community and services available to them. To help with academics, the center works with the Academic Center for Excellence to provide veterans with access to tutoring, academic advising, counseling and assistance with career placement.


“We want to develop a program where we sustain academic success through graduation and job placement,” Alderson said.


The Center grew out of a recommendation by a UNF Veterans Task Force and a $217,000 gift from the BrAIve Fund through the Community Foundation of Jacksonville. The Board of Governors for the State University System of Florida designated UNF as the lead school for establishing a model for transition support for the 11 universities in the system.


“We have been able to assemble the right people, the right talent and resources to develop an effective model, and the model is gaining national attention,” Alderson said.


As a component of UNF’s BrAIve Fund project, Yesterday’s Warriors, Today’s students, Tomorrow’s Leaders, graduate students in the Brooks College of Health Mental Health Program will provide supervised counseling to veterans and their families in addition to what’s available through the Department of Veterans Affairs.


With Jacksonville being a military town, Alderson said it’s only fitting that UNF develop the program for veterans because universities are microcosms of the communities they serve.


“The impact of the Military and Veteran Resource Center reaches far beyond helping an individual service member or veteran,” said Dr. Mauricio Gonzalez, vice president of Student and International Affairs at UNF. “The University as a whole will benefit from the unique and diverse experiences of the men and women who have served our country. We look forward to setting the standard of providing resources to these students as they transition from a life of combat to a university setting.”


In appreciation of the veterans’ service to the country, the UNF Alumni Board furnished the center’s lobby with new couches, chairs, tables, display cabinets and a credenza. The center is in Frederick H. Schultz Hall, Building 9, just off of Alumni Square.