People choose to serve in the military because of unique circumstances, economic, social or otherwise. For Russ Seamster, deep-seated fascination with the military resulted in his enlistment and later commission as an army officer after gaining leadership skills through Appalachian State’s Reserve Officer Training Corps program.
“I had always wanted to serve my country in some form or fashion, and I’ve been fantasizing about this for years and you know, it’s one of those things you don’t know until you try and even if I failed, at least I would have failed trying,” Seamster said. “And there were some times I almost failed.”
Seamster has served as the quartermaster of the Boone Veterans of Foreign Wars post for about two and half years. In this role, he manages finances and administrative duties. The VFW is one of a handful of local resources for veterans. Other fraternal organizations include American Legion, Disabled American Veterans and Military Officers Association of America. In addition, Watauga County has a veterans service office.
This Veterans Day marked the end of the first year of operation for the Student Veteran Services office in Plemmons Student Union. The office works closely with the Student Veterans Association to make veterans’ time in college and afterward more manageable. The SVA, a club of about 70 members, hosts tailgates and social events that allow veterans to meet one another and recreate some semblance of the camaraderie many felt during their service.
For Steve Tucker, commander of the local DAV chapter, family played a significant role in his joining the Navy.
Senior psychology major Meg Stevenson and senior business management major Brandon McFerren both cited an early fascination with the military with influencing each their own decisions to enlist. They are active members of the SVA.
“I guess I was always interested in it, and then just decided to enlist one day,” Stevenson said. “I kind of did it for me personally; I did it to challenge myself, see if I could do it because I remember growing up looking at soldiers and you always admire them.”
“I always wanted to as a little kid. It’s just a patriotic thing,” McFerren said. “I had family that served so I always planned on doing it, and I guess I also wanted it for the excitement of it, getting out of town and going to travel.”
As the memberships of these various veterans organizations age, differences between generations become more apparent and sometimes more dividing. Seamster recognized this as a significant issue preventing more involvement from young veterans.
“They don’t want to just come to a club with a bunch of old dudes and get griped at for two hours, so that’s one image that I know we’ve been trying to change here,” he said.
Meanwhile at the SVA, membership is relatively steady. Coordinator of Student Veteran Services Eric Gormly described the members as “highly motivated and very organized.” SVA president and junior marketing major Anthony Corso described them as “diverse and super supportive.”
Many benefits are available to veterans in the area. Gormly and others at Student Veterans Services are versed on local programs and federal benefits. The VFW also employs a services officer to direct veterans to appropriate resources.
The GI bill is an education benefit available to veterans that can help pay for some or all of college. It helps make school more affordable for many people in the SVA.
“A lot of them end up taking advantage of that GI bill, because that will basically pay their way through college,” Seamster said.
Benefits go beyond those pertaining to health and education. Social events and community involvement bring people together and allow for new connections and friendships to be made. Lloyd Dancey of the DAV and American Legion occasionally attends communal breakfasts at the American Legion location.
“It’s enjoyable; you meet a lot of good guys and some of your county commissioners, people you otherwise wouldn’t know,” Dancey said.
Dancey praised the DAV for its efforts to help veterans access the benefits they are entitled to. The DAV, among other things, provides free transportation to Veterans Affairs hospitals.
“DAV is probably one of the better organizations around right now helping vets,” Dancey said. “Free transportation to and from the VA, and it’s all volunteer, so they put a lot of time in to help their fellow veterans out. Sometimes it’s pretty demanding.”
For Seamster, the purpose of the VFW is getting involved in the community and providing a place for veterans to come and basically get to be with their own.
Despite their efforts, Tucker and Seamster both expressed worries about the future of fraternal veterans organizations. The VFW and DAV are finding it more difficult to retain members and other volunteers. Seamster has watched as VFW posts across the state have begun closing, and expressed uncertainty about the future of the Boone VFW.
“What are local veterans going to do?” Seamster said. “Where are they going to go hang out? Where are they going to go participate in the community?”
Gormly was hired as coordinator of veteran services after a national search.
“The Office of Student Veteran Services exists to ultimately to ease the transition of military students from their military life to this academic world that they’re not used to really,” Gormly said.
As an adviser to the SVA, Gormly said that what brings many of them to join the student organization is the changing sense of community when they leave the military.
“They lose that camaraderie, you know. When you’re in the military you have your brothers and sisters there right next to you and it really is like a family,” Gormly said. “They want that camaraderie back, and through that organization they can do that.”
McFerren said that this different social setting was something that impeded his transition.
“It’s difficult, especially when you come from such a tight-knit community, especially like me and my infantry buddies. We were just real tight, and then you come back and you lose a lot of that,” McFerren said.
Stevenson noticed some distance between herself and people less familiar with the military.
“Nobody wants to listen to your stories,” Stevenson said. “They ask like, ‘How was your deployment?’ and you’ll say, ‘It was good’ and you’ll try and tell them something and they’ll cut you off and start talking about anything else. I’ve noticed that a lot.”
For some veterans adjusting to a university setting, personal accountability for school work does not come as quickly. Student Veterans Services offers help like tutoring and peer mentoring to counteract this.
“In the military, if you’re not up, and you’re not at formation in the morning, people are knocking on your door saying, ‘Hey, get up, let’s go,’” Gormly said.
For McFerren and Stevenson, however, the military improved their sense of self-discipline.
“I think the military set me up for success more than anything with school because I’m a lot more disciplined,” Stevenson said. “You can plan out better how you want to reach your end goal, and then you have your contingency plans if that doesn’t work out.”
The national demography of veterans is shifting. Today, Gulf War veterans now account for the largest share of all U.S. veterans, according to the VA. About 12 percent of Gulf War veterans will experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in a given year.
With this in mind, Vietnam veteran Dancey said that people should put more attention towards veterans’ issues.
“I think they probably ought to be a little more understanding and get a little more involved in what the service people go through,” Dancey said. “It’s not a picnic out there.”
Corso is hopeful for veterans programs on campus. One area of improvement he mentioned was in mental health. He said that the SVA would like to have a counselor in health services who is specially trained to deal with veterans’ issues.
With Thanksgiving less than two weeks away, the DAV and the VFW respectively are preparing to celebrate.
“We are gonna deliver a complete Thanksgiving meal,” Tucker said. “It looks like it’s gonna be somewhere between 20 and 30 meals we’ll be delivering to needy veterans in Watauga County, and that’s another big thing we do.”
“Any veteran in the community who has no family to be with can come up and join us for Thanksgiving,” Seamster added.
As far as Veterans Day, the holiday means different things to different people. Tucker described it as a special time to honor people very important to our country. Although it is a holiday to celebrate those among us who have served, veterans make a point to honor those who died in combat.
“It should be their day to be honored, pay tribute to the fallen ones, not only the living ones. The fallen ones, they gave it all. We need to pay honor to them as well as to ones who are living,” Dancey said. “Show the respect both ways.”
Ceremonies in Boone served this dual purpose, to honor the living and dead. As Seamster said, “Veterans Day is about celebrating life. It’s about celebrating brotherhood. It’s about celebrating our fraternity for each other.”
Story By: Patrick McCabe, Intern A&E Reporter
Photos By: Halle Keighton, Photo Editor; and Patrick McCabe