A soldier's story: WVU student-veterans' speeches touch on personal, topical themes

Nine WVU student veterans presented speeches as part of Carolyn Atkins' "Speaking to Communities" course, which typically features WVU student-athletes. Atkins began a veterans' class last year and debuted their public speeches this year.

As a junior at Grafton High School, Zach Greynolds didn’t consider his own mortality when he learned of his father’s suicide. He was too busy grieving the loss of his best friend. He was also contemplating the expected birth of his first child, which he’d learned of a month earlier.

After graduating from high school, Greynolds joined the U.S. Marine Corps, where themes of life and death were constant companions. And as he fought to preserve ideals of freedom, escaping several dangerous combat situations, a sense of finality eventually took hold.

“I’ve been in over 100 engagements with enemy forces, but I recall only three times that I have ever had the overwhelming feeling of ‘I’m not going to make it home,’ ” Greynolds said. “Two of those times I was involved in explosions, and I passed my cigarettes down the line, thinking to myself, ‘Well, I don’t need these things anymore.’ “

Click to hear part of WVU student veteran Zach Greynolds' speech, Continuous Effort.

Instead of despair, Greynolds, now a 24-year-old freshman at West Virginia University and proud father of a son, has established a firm resolve, which he says drives him to succeed.

Greynolds, who earned a Purple Heart, shared his experiences Nov. 8 at the Jerry West Lounge. He was one of nine veterans who presented speeches as part of Carolyn Atkins’ “Speaking to Communities” course, which typically features WVU student-athletes. Atkins began a veterans’ class last year and debuted their public speeches this year.

“No matter the situation, I never stopped pushing myself physically and mentally,” Greynolds said. “Winston Churchill once said, ‘Continuous effort—not strength or intelligence—is the key to unlocking our potential.’”

“The willpower to never give up, the continuous effort—even against overwhelming odds—is one of the few reasons I’m here before you today.”

This year’s class featured veterans from the U.S. Army, Marines and the Army National Guard.

“The nine courageous young men you see before you today symbolize this country’s ideals of democracy and freedom,” Atkins told the audience at the Coliseum. “They put it all on the line, and, as part of a grateful nation, I thank them publicly today— as others will all week—because thanking them silently is like not thanking them at all.”

The vets’ speeches touched on personal experiences and topical issues like drinking and driving, the dangers of smoking and the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.

As a member of the U.S. Army, Thomas Pierce spent seven years fighting for our country’s freedom. Now a WVU freshman, he is exploring new concepts in freedom – personal freedom.

Click to hear part of WVU student veteran Thomas Pierce's speech, Echoes in Eternity.

“It’s different,” Pierce said of his adjustment to college life. “The military is very structured. You know where you have to be, what you’re going to be doing, someone is telling you when to wake up, where to be. Now, all that’s on me.”

Pierce, and Jonnathan Baumes, a fellow Army vet, spoke about the need for mandatory military service.

“Serving in the military shouldn’t be looked at as a negative thing, but as an opportunity to serve your nation,” Pierce said. “Your nation is more than what you think. It is your father, your mother, and even your best friend.

“You should be proud of where you come from and, in doing so, wouldn’t you want to be a real part of this amazing nation by doing your part? Not just a civilian, but a true citizen of the best country in the world. We aren’t given citizenship, we earn it.”

Despite the variety of topics, many speeches conveyed similar messages, touching on the importance of service, the effects of war on soldiers and transitioning back into society or a college campus.

Tyler LaVay, a junior criminology major from Bethesda, Md., emphasized the need to support service men and women in a variety of ways. He said typing “support, U.S. troops” into an Internet search engine provides a multitude of ideas and opportunities. Interpersonal contact is another way.

Click to hear part of WVU student veteran Tyler LaVay's speech, One More Prayer.

“Express your appreciation to veterans or those in uniform when you have the chance,” LaVay said. “It’s very humbling to walk through an airport, have people clap for you, shake your hand, and say ‘Thank you.’ It’s a wonderful feeling knowing that people back home appreciate what you’re doing. A simple smile or wave always brightens a soldier’s day.”

Other presenters were Tyler Wilt, Bobby Davis, Rob Maston, Brad Owens and Nate Hickman.

For more on WVU veterans, see: http://wvuveterans.wvu.edu/.



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