As the United States’ longest running conflict – the Afghanistan War – draws to a close, the demand for medical, social, financial, educational and other services for veterans is increasing dramatically.
To accommodate those working toward health-related degrees, the University of Arizona has opened a new resource center, which is being lauded as a nation's first for specifically supporting student veterans pursuing health sciences degrees.
Senior government officials in Arizona and key UA administrators introduced the University's new Veteran Education and Transition Services Center, located at the Arizona Health Science Center, during a grand opening ceremony held Thursday.
Nearly 200 students, employees and community members attended the event, including Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, veteran and retired astronaut Mark E. Kelly and his wife, former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, Rep. Ethan Orr and representatives of other government offices throughout Arizona.
"I believe that an education is truly a gateway to prosperity and a good life," Orr said. "The best programs, including the best transition programs, are here at the University of Arizona."
Estimates indicate as the war in Afghanistan comes to a close, about 1.5 million service members will soon be returning to civilian life and that those individuals will need support finding jobs – many of which will require a degree.
The center is similar in purpose and structure to the other VETS Center, located in the UA Student Union Memorial Center on the main campus. With its trained student veteran staff, the new center is meant to be an important resource for easing veterans into the university setting while also providing additional resources geared toward those pursuing careers in medicine and health care.
"Often we see the news about vets who have PTSD, who are homeless, who lack the ability to get a job," Kelly said.
"You don't see as often in the media what vets bring to their employer. These young men and women have an incredible commitment to the country, an incredible respect for the people they work for and they tend to be highly trained in technical areas," he said. "I want to commend – and Gabby does too – everyone who made this happen."
The UA is especially well suited to introduce such a center.
The health sciences center is home to research that has broad significance and impact, providing training programs in medicine, nursing, pharmacy, public health, cancer research, minority health, mental health and other areas. Also, the UA is recognized nationally for its programs and services geared toward student veterans.
Having received earmarked funding thanks to the efforts of Rep. Raúl Grijalva, the UA and its Disability Resource Center were able to pilot a program to study the needs of student veterans in 2008. The initial drive was to ensure that veterans with disabilities returning from service in the Middle East had educational access to aid with eventual job placement.
Since then, the UA's student veteran population has grown to nearly 1,200. The University offers a broad suite of services and support designed specifically for them and those interested in military service. Such programs and services include Disability Resources, Adaptive Athletics, campus ROTC programs, the GI Bill education benefits assistance and student-led clubs. The UA is also a partner institution with the Pat Tillman Foundation, which provides scholarships to student veterans.
"It was that little germ to get that going," said Melissa Vito, senior vice president for Student Affairs and Enrollment Management and vice provost for Academic Initiatives and Student Success.
"Part of our goal was to be among the first and to be the best, recognized for meeting the needs of veterans when they come back, and to work with our veterans to meet those needs,” Vito said.
"And now to think about the vitality and the dedication and the commitment of all the student veterans who, including Cody Nicholls, made that happen – I am astounded at the opening of this center," she said. "This is groundbreaking."
Yet some of the center's facilitators are sometimes asked why the services are needed.
Cody Nicholls, assistant dean for VETS, said: "I like to answer that question in the form of a question: How many people would write a blank check to their employer, travel around the world at a moment's notice and, in doing so, possibly give up their life?"
The answer, he said, is not many.
"But that's exactly what our military does today, and what our veterans have done for us," Nicholls said. The center exists to reduce barriers for student veterans, aiding them through their studies so that they are more prepared to enter civilian life, he added.
First-year medical student and Pat Tillman Scholar Adam Ratesic said that after leaving the U.S. Air Force in 2006 and beginning his studies, he had the choice to return home in Ohio.
"But I chose to make Tucson my new home, and a significant factor in my decision was that the University of Arizona is considered strong in supporting the vet population," said Ratesic, who also co-chairs the Medical Student Veterans Club.
Ratesic spoke at the opening about how invaluable his lasting connections with other student veterans has been and that his leadership involvement in preparing students for the military has shaped his life.
"The VETS Center is a place where we can establish and enrich comradery and stay informed," Ratesic told the audience. "Thank you for your sincere interest and commitment to our medical education."