A pathway to healing
Veterans helping veterans at UGA
Growing up, Bill Huff (BBA ’65) always knew he wanted to serve in the military. When he started college at UGA, he pledged Kappa Alpha and later, on a dare, joined the Platoon Leaders Class of the U.S. Marine Corps. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant and would serve active duty for the next three years, leaving as a captain.
His job, running convoys across Vietnam, risking sniper attacks and land mines, was “hell on earth,” he says.
Coming home, however, was its own hell. Anti-war sentiment was strong, and Huff felt it immediately.
On the plane from Los Angeles to Tampa passengers turned their backs and wouldn’t speak to him. He was called a baby killer. He couldn’t wear his uniform in public.
Huff was haunted by his experiences in combat. Nightmares accompanied his sleep. Rather than facing his fears, he bottled up his emotions in an unhealthy manner. It was, he says, “a pathway to disaster.”
But he found help through a program at a mental health center in Columbus where he was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder. He learned to talk about the horrors of the war and began meeting other local veterans with similar experiences.
“People that have not been in combat, that have not smelled or tasted, felt or understood what combat is, you can’t really explain it to them,” Huff says. “You can only explain it to somebody who would understand it—who had been there.”
During a visit to campus, Huff chats with retired Air Force Lt. Col. Ted Barco, who directs UGA’s Student Veterans Resource Center. Photo by Dot Paul.
Now he is reaching out to help student veterans at UGA.
Huff is chairman of the endowment campaign for the Student Veterans Resource Center, a unit of the division of student affairs, which opened last spring in the Tate Student Center. Money raised for the endowment will pay for support services, scholarships, programming and other needs that help military veterans at UGA succeed.
There are more than 200 student veterans from all branches of the military enrolled at UGA and they range in age from 21 to 64, says retired Air Force Lt. Col. Ted Barco, the center’s director. They served in Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan and Iraq. Some are reservists and some are active duty or retired service members who have served in domestic and international disaster zones.
Through the SVRC they are connected with services and programs on campus, as well as in the Athens community, that help them deal with physical, emotional and psychological issues as well as financial problems that could derail their degree plans.
The SVRC provides a small space for student veterans to congregate. From left: Clay Shelley, a senior biology and pre-med major from Athens who serves in the Army National Guard; Matthew Fowler, a senior political science major from Loganville and Navy reservist, who served four years of active duty; and Matt Rowenczak, an MBA student from Nashville, Tenn., who spent five years in the Navy. Photo by Peter Frey.
“We are getting the cream of the crop. We have to offer a tapestry of opportunities for them,” Barco says. “These are the ones who have the greatest potential to shape business and culture in the nation going forward because their military experience makes them uniquely capable compared to their peers.”
Matt Fowler, a senior political science major, is president of the Student Veterans of America (SVA) UGA chapter. When he enrolled in 2012 he was surprised to find few services for veterans on campus.
“When I came to the university, I kind of felt out of place among the traditional students,” says Fowler, a U.S. Navy operations specialist. “When there wasn’t a veterans student organization, I saw a need for it and I really wanted to step in.”
He and Mike Lancaster (AB ’13) of Gainesville, Ga., who served eight years in the Navy, initiated the student organization for veterans at UGA. Their work led to the SVA chapter, and then to the SVRC, which is housed in a small space formerly occupied by the U.S. Postal Service. Student veterans use the space to study, learn about support services and meet with other veterans, like Huff, who returns to UGA periodically. In time, Huff hopes the center can move to a larger space and offer more to students.
“[These veterans] need help. I am fighting for what I believe in for this center, because we owe it to them,” Huff says. “I am here today by the grace of God. And I was given the chance to make a difference.”
—Emily Williams is the director of communications for the UGA Office of Development.
Get more at dos.uga.edu/svrc.