Helping Military Veterans Bring Heroism to OSU Classrooms

They come from far corners, from ships and skies and battlefields offering no guarantee they will return home. For as long as there have been wars, there have been military veterans, heroes, who have given themselves wholeheartedly to a cause.

In the rush of life, however, heroes are easily forgotten, and upon their return, veterans must prove themselves once again, this time within the framework of new rules and new measures of success.

Even before their first whiff of home cooking, they are confronted with a simple question with complex answers and vital consequences.

“What now?”

This fall, about 1,000 veterans –more than at any of the state’s seven public universities—are predicted to enroll in the Oregon State University system in pursuit of answers to the question cast upon them.

Gus Bedwell, 38, was hired in March to serve as OSU’s first veteran services advisor. It is his mission to help students navigate through the transition and advise staff, faculty and administrators about how they can more effectively address veterans’ unique needs.

The reason for the increased enrollment is three-fold, Bedwell says. There is drawdown in Iraq, the most comprehensive GI Bill since World War II and the fact that activated National Guard members are now classified as veterans.

As they leave one life for another, veterans encounter land mines of a different nature.

“They arrive here from a culture where they are told what to do and when to do it, 24/7, to a culture where you’re making decisions on your own. We want them to ask for help. We want them to succeed,” says Bedwell.

To that end, a work group, advisory committee, taskforce director, veterans club and fraternity have been established to help students understand what services are available and to provide them with a voice on campus.

There is one more way of seeking help, Bedwell says. Knock on his door on the first floor of the Kerr Administration Building for a private discussion.

“I was where they are 10 years ago, raising a family, attending school fulltime and working a fulltime job,” he says. “I know how difficult that can be.”

 Bedwell enlisted while in high school and spent six years in the Army, most of that time working as a mechanic. Having grown up the hard way, he had few options.

“My wife and I both came out of broken families,” he says. “I grew up mostly in foster homes, and my parents couldn’t pay for college, so I knew I would have to pay for it on my own. Then a recruiter came by and asked me if I had ever thought of the military. I said that I wasn’t really interested. I wanted to go to college. I thought the military was for people who wanted to go to war.”

He learned, however, that the military could serve as a bridge allowing him to reach a distant shore. Bedwell never planned on becoming a soldier. He wanted to become a youth pastor.  

“I’d love to tell you it was a patriotic reason, but I wanted to go to school and become a better person, and that was one way I could do it.”

Upon leaving the military, he attended Western Baptist College, now Corban University, and earned a bachelor’s degree in family studies and psychology. While he never became a pastor, he is active in his church and has remained true to one constant in his life.

“If there’s anything my career has been, it’s helping people,” he says.

Prior to his employment in the Office of the Dean of Student Life, Bedwell was an advocate for veteran students through the Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs. It involved many of the same duties he now performs: helping students discover and utilize available resources--helping them find bridges of their own.

Maria Ballard, 27, followed her family’s tradition and enlisted in the Army post 9-11. She served a year in the Army as a rocket launcher mechanic before injuring a leg. In 2003 she received an honorable discharge because of injury.

“Because I left early, even though it was an honorable discharge, I wasn’t considered a veteran, and I was denied benefits I was entitled to,” she says. “I went into a depression. I thought I had nothing, absolutely nothing.”

Ballard, not willing to give up, enrolled in classes at Linn-Benton Community College, where she became a student ambassador and met Bedwell. She told him her story, and he became her advocate.

“He changed my life,” she says. “Because of Gus, I will have my entire graduate school paid for.”

At OSU, she is majoring in psychology and expects to graduate this winter. Her goal is to help veterans.

Not all outcomes are as successful as Ballard’s. Bedwell has been told by state Department of Employment officials and National Guard leadership that in Benton and Linn counties, the rate of unemployment or underemployment for veterans is about 50 percent.

It breaks his heart, he says, but equally painful are broken wills as students struggle through the labyrinth of post-military education while trying to dispel a forbidding myth.

“I have been in the military community for almost 20 years now, and what bothers me the most in this business is the misconception--because of the media--that if you’re in Iraq or Afghanistan you must have PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and that you must be, in some manner, dangerous or crazy or volatile. That is simply not true.”

Which is not to say that war doesn’t leave scars, Bedwell says. As with anyone, the past never completely loses its grip.

“Do they have nightmares? Do they have flashbacks? Do they have triggers? Do they have any of those things?  Maybe so, but the biggest thing I get told by veterans who have gone off to combat then come home is that they value life more, especially if they lost somebody in a combat zone or if they, unfortunately, had to take someone’s life in a combat zone. It has taught them that the value of life is huge.”

A common mistake for veterans is impatience. “Neutral time,” Bedwell calls it, a period to purge and prepare.  

“They rush into education. They haven’t been off active duty for 30 days and they’re already starting school. They jump into a situation where they haven’t transitioned very well.”

Another barrier has to do with the Veterans Administration’s lag in putting checks in the mail.

“They get several months into schooling and the VA still hasn’t given them their pay checks, so they find themselves a month behind in their rent, wondering what to do. Many of them are supporting families, and they become discouraged. So what do they do? They quit school.”

The critical period is their first year, he says, when it becomes apparent whether students have gathered enough momentum to carry them forward on new terrain.

 “The national average is that most students make it for about two terms. Then they become overwhelmed. That’s when they drop out, and that’s when it’s essential to encourage them and help them.”

For the university, the payoff is huge, Bedwell says. Veterans bring to campus a fuller understanding of the world at its best and worst.  They have been trained in methods of respecting leadership and dedicating their lives to high standards.

“Even if they never went to combat or war, they were taught some basic work ethics and principles that, I’m sorry, the majority of the students coming in right out of high school don’t have. Most soldiers, if you really talk to them and get to the heart of it, will say, ‘Once a soldier, always a soldier.’ They have core values that make our society so great today.’”

Information for OSU veterans is available at http://oregonstate.edu/veterans/home/

Bedwell can be reached at Gus.Bedwell@Oregonstate.edu or at (541) 737-7662.

His office is in Room B-102C in the Registrar’s Office, Kerr Administrative Building.

Story and photo by Duane Noriyuki