After the death of Athens student Zachary Bristol-Aldrich in September, Piedmont faculty, staff and senior student veterans of the armed services are combining their efforts to provide support to returning veterans. Just before Veteran’s Day last month, both campuses held luncheons to discuss how Piedmont can best serve and support these esteemed citizens who serve our country.
Zachary Bristol-Aldridge, 26, served in Afghanistan and Iraq during his active service in the United States Marine Corps. He continued his service in the Army National Guard and began classes this fall at Piedmont, planning to become a police officer after completing his bachelor’s degree. Students and faculty who knew him said he had a passion for people and an infectious smile.
“It was impossible not to notice Zac’s smile,” Campus Minister Timothy Garvin-Leighton said in an email to the Piedmont community in Athens. “When you met him, you could sense right away that he was genuinely interested in hearing your story, which made a lasting impression on everyone he interacted with on campus.”
Bristol-Aldrich’s family set up a fundraising campaign to raise awareness of PTSD in the military community. “Our brave men and women in uniform understand duty, honor, and sacrifice,” the family posted on the campaign site. “Many have returned home with both the visible scars and the unseen wounds. We need to give back to those who have given of themselves so selflessly any way possible.”
Piedmont faculty and staff are reaching out to veteran students to find out what they can do to meet the unique needs of returning veterans.
“There are things that veterans deal with that everyone doesn’t deal with,” theater professor and US Army National Guard serviceman John Spiegel said. “Things most people don’t think about. A bag sitting next to a classroom. You walk right by it. A veteran looks at that and is wondering if there’s something in it. It’s a moment for them: okay, everything’s fine.”
Exercise science professor Jeremy Fouts served ten years in the Army after high school before going back to school on the GI Bill. When he received orders to be deployed to Afghanistan in 2005, he said the Veterans Affairs Office at his college helped him access VA health services and stay in school instead of returning to active duty.
“When I got orders, I was in the middle of my junior year in college,” Fouts said. “I utilized VA health services and I didn’t have to go. I think that was part of the transition period, where they were really starting to recognize the degree and severity of the mental health issues that go on in the military.”
Fouts said that he and other faculty and staff hope to provide similar resources to students here at Piedmont.
“I’m part of the committee that’s working to establish the things that veterans need and bring that awareness to campus,” Fouts said. “One of the things we’re trying to work with is getting some of the senior veteran students involved who can help the freshman and transfer students transition into Piedmont’s culture, to the regular civilian life culture. It’s a different world, it’s a different expectation, and that transition can sometimes be the most difficult part.”
Senior Piedmont students and veterans Catrell Beamon, Riley Carter and Rily Passini said they are willing to step into that role, one they wish had been available when they first came to Piedmont.
“In the military, when you change commands, there’s always somebody there who shows you around, tells you what’s going on and what the deal is,” business major Rily Passini, US Navy, said. “It would be really nice to have that here and I would be willing to do that for somebody.”
Senior exercise and sports science major Catrell Beamon, US Air Force, said he had a hard time finding his way around campus on his first day at Piedmont.
“I had to look at the sign to even find the building to go to,” Beamon said. “If there was a veteran here that you could contact once you got on campus, they could take you these places and show you these things. Then on the first day of school you have just as much confidence as you need to have a really good semester and a really good chance.”
Beamon said he would be happy to help incoming students feel at home here at Piedmont.
“I’ve been here multiple semesters and I’ve found success, Beamon said. “It would show someone coming in that if I’m here, and you’re coming from the road that I came down, then you can definitely do it.”
Senior nursing major and US Marine Riley Carter said that Piedmont staff have the right idea.
“They were very receptive about what we had to say,” Carter said after the luncheon. “I think we collectively have the experience now under our belts here to be able to help somebody through the process, and there is faculty that is willing and able to do what’s necessary to get this ball rolling. I guess now it’s just putting it in motion and seeing where it will go.”
The committee hopes to make veteran students a part of the Piedmont community from day one, and to support them in any way possible.
“That’s our goal,” Fouts said. “Whatever support the veterans need, that’s what we want to provide.”
Veteran students and faculty said they are best equipped to help other veterans.
“Somebody is going to catch a veteran slipping,” Passini said. “Somebody who’s fallen through the cracks, who needs help. Veterans know if there’s something wrong with another veteran. We look out for each other. We want all veterans to have success here.”