When the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, spoke to West Virginia University officials, students and community members on Tuesday (April 20), he always brought them back to how necessary it was for his listeners to band together to support veterans.
It’s a mission that can only be accomplished by the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs in conjunction with the country’s citizens, he said.
Mullen was visiting WVU and Morgantown on a mission to promote successful integration of returning American veterans into communities across the country. While hearing from veterans, employers, citizens and campus and community officials, Mullen acknowledged the work that the university and community are already doing to help veterans.
“It’s obvious that you care, as was pointed out at in an earlier session today, as a veteran-friendly university and a veteran-friendly community and in a veteran-friendly state,” Mullen told an audience of more than 200 at the Morgantown Event Center at Waterfront Place during a town hall meeting.
Earlier at the Mountainlair Student Union on WVU’s Downtown Campus, WVU President James P. Clements welcomed Mullen and spoke of the university’s commitment to veterans.
“WVU is proud to be a partner in this important day of discussion,” Clements said. “It is important to talk about how we as a community can better help our returning veterans and their families reenter this community and transition seamlessly into our schools and colleges, our health care systems and our employment base.”
Mullen’s first engagement with an audience Tuesday was during a panel session that included four WVU leaders along with Clements and Vice President of Student Affairs Ken Gray.
Trisha Gyurke, the director of WVU Employment, spoke of the important qualities veterans bring as employees such as the education they possess and their job experiences that fit with a variety of roles at a university. Terry Miller, veterans advocate, said student veterans are usually highly motivated, have strong leadership qualities and bring a lot of life experience to campus.
Anne Hirsh, co-director of the Job Accommodation Network headquartered at WVU, spoke of the services her agency can bring to veterans such as consultations and job training and placement. The last member of the panel was Steve Ernst, president of the Student Veterans Group, who applauded the new GI bill that will go further toward meeting veterans’ needs, particularly education but was concerned about how slow the Department of Veterans Affairs was in processing the necessary paperwork.
Next came a panel of business leaders who spoke of their support for hiring veterans.
Many WVU officials promoted the ways in which the university supports veterans and asked how they could help.
WVU Provost Michele Wheatly said that a piece of the university’s upcoming strategic planning will focus on how to better serve adult learners, including veterans, who will be seeking education in increasing numbers as more residents return to school later in life and as veterans return from overseas deployments. Because these adult learners will need online education due to living in rural areas and having work commitments, the university is seeking how to best help them.
“We will meet them where they are with what they need,” Wheatly said.
Wheatly asked Mullen his advice on how the university could proactively anticipate how many veterans will be in need of this service.
Mullen said he didn’t have exact numbers of veterans in the state as veterans do not always self-identify, but he said the university was on the right track in anticipating that educational need.
Jim Stevens, a sophomore at WVU and veteran, told Mullen of the lack of educational support from the military as he applied to college. He saw lots of resources for finding jobs, but very little support for veterans enrolling in school. Stevens said he filled out his college application from Afghanistan while deployed, and he knows of other veterans who want to go to college but may not be aware of the resources available to help them do so.
“What you’re saying is exactly right,” Mullen told Stevens. “We focus on employment more than anything else.”
He assured his audience that he would look into the matter and see what actions the military could take to change that situation.
In the question-and-answer sections, veterans and representatives of veteran support organizations put a long line of questions to Mullen about their most persistent concerns, ranging from health care and employment to the military’s role in the Middle East. Mullen also addressed head on such sensitive issues such as toward sexual orientation, sexual harassment and attitudes about mental health.
Throughout the day, Mullen and his wife, Debrah, made positive connections with the Morgantown area community. Following a morning bell ringing and wreath laying service at Oglebay Plaza to commemorate veterans and the victims of the recent mining explosion in West Virginia, the Mullens took interest in the USS West Virginia bell and mast.
Debrah Mullen said it is special for the university to have a bell in such good condition with its origins so well-documented.
“That’s really a very neat thing to have,” she said.
Mullen went a long way toward winning the hearts of the U.S. Air Force ROTC color guard at WVU when he gave all four color guardsmen coins with the emblem of his office.
Ben Carrero, color guard member and electrical engineering major, said that when his detachment commander told him about the event, he figured it was just routine.
“At first I thought it was just another color guard event,” Carrero said.
But when he discovered who would be speaking, he became excited.
“To get a coin from him just blows everyone’s minds,” he said. “It’s awesome.”
By Diana Mazzella
WVU News and Information Service
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