Providing Support for Veterans
In 2008, Erik Christensen and Benjamin Mayer had a vision: as real-life veterans who were then students at UCI, they wanted to provide support for student veterans. Founded in the wake of the overseas wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Veterans Student Union (VSU) at UC Irvine, a chapter of Student Veterans of America, was born.
Christensen and Mayer wanted to provide an apolitical outlet for fellow veterans, created by veterans who understand what the military represents and stands for.
VSU became a place for veterans to talk about their experiences with others who understood the travails they had to endure. The organization became the voice of the heavily under-represented veteran community.
“Our aim was to educate the public about policies adverse to veterans in America,” Christensen said.
As a result, VSU began public forums to help repudiate any myths about veterans and show the public the truth. In addition, they wrote op-ed articles and gained much momentum and publicity. One of their biggest goals involved lobbying Congress and the Senate for changes to national laws.
Fast forward two years. David Curry is the current President of the organization. Curry was a Sergeant of the Marine Corps for seven years and is a sociology and economics double major here at UCI.
Curry launched an outreach program at Saddleback College for student veterans, and that played a large part in why he transferred to UCI.
“It was a natural bridge to come here and to join VSU,” Curry said.
There is a new Montgomery G.I. Bill in Congress. The bill initially provided benefits, like college or vocational education, only for returning World War II veterans. Since the original act, it has expanded to include other veteran benefit programs to assist veterans of subsequent wars and peacetime services.
Although VSU supports this new bill, they also call for an amendment to ensure that it reflects some kind of auditing process so that veterans are not taken advantage of.
VSU made major strides earlier this year when UCI finally agreed to grant priority registration to veterans. The club campaigned heavily, and even won the support of former UCI Vice Chancellor Manuel Gomez and California Assembly Member and recent U.S. Senate candidate Chuck DeVore.
“This was a major goal from the beginning of our club’s inception,” Curry said. “We started looking at comparative policies across other UC schools and made the final pushes.”
Their hard-fought battle prevailed, and now all student soldiers, airmen, sailors, marines and veterans are automatically able to start registering for their courses earlier for the duration of their education, rather than just for the first quarter.
The organization continues to be socially active on campus, promoting veterans causes and petitioning for veteran rights. Yet VSU pushes the envelope further by trying to establish a permanent Veteran’s Memorial.
They are making their first few steps towards this by creating the Wall of Heroes, which is on display this week on Ring Mall. The Wall came about because initial efforts for a permanent fund were declined.
The larger focus of many of their meetings and forums revolve around easing the transition from military to academics to goals outside of school. They research post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is an aspect of the transition and something countless veterans across the world suffer from. They even met Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger as a part of a press conference in Sacramento, held to restore funding to veterans suffering from PTSD.
In conjunction with other student veteran organizations across the state, VSU puts together many events throughout the year, all to help establish a strong student veteran community and “foster a dialogue between the service members and the community.”
In honor of Veterans Day, VSU hosted a veterans luncheon with Senator Lou Correa.
“Being a veteran is not a conservative or a liberal issue; it’s something everybody should support regardless of their political party,” Curry said. “With VSU being apolitical, I like how I am able to meet with various government officials of different parties and interests.”
Curry, along with all the other VSU members, has not only had the opportunity to meet with the governor and other government representatives, but has traveled all over the state for both social and governmental purposes as well. For instance, there was Lobby Day in Sacramento, as well as a meeting where a representative from every California community college attended.
“The various VSU events and panels are probably my favorite part of it all,” Curry said. “I won’t ever forget last year’s Veterans Appreciation Dinner, where Dr. Heidi Kraft was the keynote speaker.”
VSU remains intent on providing a community for fellow veterans. They strive to find a balance between being a social organization and a policy-driven club.
“We want to appeal to both interests – lend support and push for veteran policies,” Curry said. “But we have a ways to go. Among our faculty and students, I think that, other than Memorial Day and Veterans Day, veterans are still met with indifference. We need more support to make a successful transition and that comes with more campus engagement.”