Last updated: November 07. 2013 4:56PM - 1826 Views
Lisa Garrett

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Tri-County Technical College will celebrate the opening of a new veterans center, Patriots’ Place, Monday at 11 a.m. in the Student Center, Suite 155. The public is invited to attend.

PENDLETON —- Seven years ago, one hour after graduating early from North Buncombe High School in Weaverville, N.C., 18-year-old Rhett Keaton was on a bus headed to Parris Island for 13 weeks of Marine Corps recruit training.

“It was a mindset. I was going to the Marines,” remembers Keaton, who during two deployments, served as an infantry rifleman and SAW gunner. By age 22, he had been in 15 different countries.

Now he’s in a different place in life and is gaining confidence and embracing the camaraderie of fellow veterans at a new Veterans Center, named Patriots’ Place, that opens this month on Tri-County’s Pendleton Campus. He is among the 225 veterans who are enrolled at Tri-County this semester who need a place to call their own, said the College’s Disabilities Coordinator Stephanie Winkler, who worked to create a veterans center that will serve as a one-stop shop for enrollment processes, resources and a place to hang out and talk. “It will give veterans a home on campus.

Six years after enter the Marine Corps, he didn’t re-enlist and began a job search that included applying for employment ranging from railroad labor, to police officer to clerk. He finally found work doing demolitions for a temp agency. “Like a lot of veterans coming home from the service, I discovered that I wasn’t marketable. Sacrifice isn’t a skill. I kept thinking, I was a marksmanship instructor for 250 officers weekly on the rifle range. How did I get here? I decided to go to college and get on track.”

His goal is to re-enter the Marine Corps as a commissioned officer and is working toward a bachelor’s degree. A self-proclaimed “not great” student in high school, Keaton moved to Central to be near family and enrolled at Tri-County Technical College, where he is easing into his first semester as a Business Management student. Now invested in his education, he has surprised himself by maintaining a B average. His plan is to transfer to a four-year university, graduate, and enter the Marines as a commissioned officer before age 28.

Veterans take care of other veterans,” Winkler said. In addition, a licensed professional counselor will be available by appointment to give counseling to combat veterans, she said. “We have more than 200 veterans on all of our campuses. This will be a place where they can get to know each other, study together, have meetings, and access resources. Veterans’ peers are the biggest support system they have. They rally for each other,” she said.

“As part of the planning process for the center, we held veterans focus group sessions,” said Winkler. “Many were saying give us a place, and we’ll take care of each other. We are organizing resources and services in one spot and deeming it their space,” she said.

Veterans come from all over the world, said Keaton, and many have had back-to-back deployments and are experiencing combat stress and need a support network. “The center is a place where veterans can enjoy fellowship on a daily basis. If we have issues, we have somewhere to go. There are counselors and resources to help us get acclimated. We can go here and get help,” said Keaton, 25.

“Some of our veterans are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) as a result of their military service. In our conversations, I see and hear their struggles and how it’s tough to readjust to civilian life,” said Winkler. “Veterans who have PTSD and TBI have anxiety issues. It’s hard to find a quiet place on campus. Patriots’ Place is a quiet place where they feel safe,” said Winkler.

“We plan to educate our faculty more about PTSD and other veterans’ issues in general and the special struggles they face,” she added.

“When a serviceman or woman is out of the service, we feel out of place and oftentimes we are out of a job. Sometimes that feels like a failure,” said Rhett. “Many of us enroll in college for the first time. If we aren’t in a comfortable environment, it can feel like yet another failure. If we feel comfortable, it makes our success rate higher. It’s important that we are embraced.”

“Our veterans center has an open door where students can connect to a counselor who is aware of their struggles,” said Winkler.

Keaton says he’s settling into academia and is soaking up all of the knowledge he can. “I now have a real-world perspective that helps me see the big picture.”

The center’s initial services are a stepping stone, said Keaton, who serves as president of the new Student Veterans Affairs group. “We look for the services for veterans to grow,” he said. “We want to tailor fit the registration and enrollment process to veterans. It’s harder for people who have been out of school for years to navigate the steps of enrollment on the Internet. That’s what the student veterans group is doing – we are meeting and discussing changes and avenues of approach. If veterans feel like we belong here, we’ll be successful.”

“It is our goal for the place to grow and flourish with more services for our veterans,” said Winkler. “It’s gratifying to work with veterans. Tri-County is full of people who want to help.”

For more information, contact Stephanie Winkler at 646-1564 or swinkler@tctc.edu.

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