Campus News / Fall 2018

This is how we serve: A suite of DU programs supports veterans on campus and in the community

In December, some 30 rowing teams from around the world will descend on tiny La Gomera, in the Canary Islands, to take part in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, an annual 3,000-mile boat race from La Gomera to Antigua. It’s a grueling endur­ance challenge that is a badge of honor for those who complete it.

Among the crews battling winds, waves and weather as they spend four to six weeks on the roiling open sea is Fight Oar Die, a group of four military veterans competing in the challenge to raise aware­ness and money for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

It’s a daunting task physically, but mentally it’s just as tough. Helping the vets get ready for the stress of the mission are students and faculty in the Sturm Special­ty in Military Psychology at DU’s Graduate School of Professional Psychology (GSPP).

“We’re helping prepare this team for the rigors of that expedition, and along with our preparation, we’re doing all sorts of psychological assessments with them,” says Jacob Hyde, director of the program. “We’ve given them psychological batteries up front, to be able to understand how they operate, but when they actually leave, they’re going to take different experiments with them on the boat. Every day they’re going to fill out some different measures that tell us how their brains are functioning, the way that they’re feeling, and how they’re doing over­all. Once they get back, we’ll do some more testing on them, so we’ll have data from that as well.”

What the DU team is trying to learn, Hyde says, is what factors — what combina­tion of effective preparation and personal characteristics — help make such an ex­treme mission successful. The results have applicability to everything from military missions to space flight.


Hands-on with veteran populations

The Fight Oar Die project is the latest research effort at the Sturm Specialty in Military Psy­chology, created in 2015 thanks to a gift from University of Den­ver trustee and alumnus Donald Sturm (LLB ’58) — a former Army psychologist — and the Sturm Family Foundation. In addition to providing research experience to psychology doctoral students, the GSPP program gives them ac­ademic training in working with military populations. Students put this training into play at the Sturm Center, an off-campus be­havioral health clinic for military veterans, active service members and their families.

“People aren’t trained how to be culturally competent in work­ing with veterans, service mem­bers and their families unless they work at the VA or they served in the military,” says Kathryn Barrs, director of the Sturm Center. “We wanted to develop a program where providers can receive that training at the very beginning and then go out into the commu­nity and either work for the VA, the Department of Defense or in private practice. The wonderful thing about the clinic is that the students are getting the classroom experience and then being able to take that and apply it in a clinic, which is hard to find. There are a fair [number] of programs na­tionally that have either clinics or academic training, but they don’t have them integrated in this way.”

Ethan Bannar, a second-year doctoral student, says that when he discovered the Sturm Specialty, his longtime dream of working as a military psychologist suddenly seemed within reach.

“It was the most perfect match,” he says of the DU pro­gram. “Completing the application and writing my application essays and really telling the story as to why I wanted to go to this school, for the first time I experienced it being easy. I experienced it mak­ing sense. This is how you apply to schools you have a genuine inter­est in or a population you want to work with.”

While Bannar is looking for­ward to starting his residency at the Sturm Center this fall (“I want to get my hands dirty!”), his best experience in the military psy­chology program to date has been in Hyde’s four-class sequence that introduces students to military culture and the physical and psy­chological effects of military duty. A veteran who served in the Navy for three years and in the reserves for five years after that, Hyde de­signed the classes to give students a clear window into the military mindset.

“Jacob has seen the whole spectrum of this field of military psychology, from being a member of a branch of the military to be­coming a clinical psychologist and working in a VA setting where he’s worked with members that have discharged from the military,” Bannar says. “It’s neat to learn from somebody who’s so knowl­edgeable of and so passionate about the population.”


Navigating the benefits maze

The reputation of the Sturm Specialty and the Sturm Center are growing re­gionally and nationally, but the Graduate School of Professional Psychology is far from the only place on campus offering support to veterans and military popu­lations. In the Sturm College of Law, the Veterans Advocacy Project (VAP) has a very specific mission: helping veterans — and, often, their dependents — appeal their VA benefits.

For VAP founder Anne Vessels, a pro­fessor at the law college, the legal clinic has very personal origins: Her youngest son, Sean Irwin, spent eight years in the Marines and deployed three times to the Middle East. When he returned home, he struggled with PTSD. He lived with his parents while waiting for his VA benefits to be approved; the process took more than a year.

“Had he not lived with us, he’d have been on the streets,” Vessels says. “I’d never seen that until I watched what he was going through. I was also starting to see emails on a listserv that I’m on that were talking about veterans’ clinics, and I thought, ‘That could be cool.’”

Vessels used her 2014 sabbatical to create and staff the VAP, which launched in 2015. She recruited DU law alumni Mike Shea and Tim Franklin as adjunct profes­sors and to help supervise students’ legal work. Both are experts in veteran law: Shea is a former Marine and Colorado National Guardsman who spent time in the Colora­do secretary of state’s office, and Franklin has a robust practice in VA disability bene­fits compensation law.

At the clinic, located in the Bill Daniels Veterans Services Center at 12th and Santa Fe in Denver, law students assist veterans appealing their VA benefits decisions — there often is a big discrepancy between a veteran’s level of disability and what the VA decides to pay them for that disability, Vessels explains — as well as those looking to get their discharge status changed in or­der to qualify for benefits in the first place.

More than 10 percent of the service members who left the military between 2011 and 2015 received less-than-honor­able discharges, according to a recent re­port from the Government Accountability Office, meaning that they are not eligible for any benefits, including health care, dis­ability or the GI Bill.

“When somebody comes to us who is other-than-honorable, we work with the VA to say, ‘You should deem this person honorable for health purposes, even though he’s other-than-honorable from the military,’” Vessels says. “‘You should look at a number of factors, and you should deem him honorable at least for VA purposes and give him his benefits and health care.’”

Law students who work in the clinic take a 3-credit seminar on veterans’ benefits and military law, then they spend 150 hours over the course of a semester working with clients. For students like Casey Alexander, a 2018 law school graduate who served in the Navy for six years, the VAP offered the perfect opportunity to get real-world legal experience while providing a much-needed service to his fellow veterans.

“In a lot of ways, veterans are an underserved segment of the population, and the VA can be a complicated system to try and navigate,” he says. “It was a great thing because I could give back and I could also learn. The faculty members who volunteer their time and work with the students do it because they care about the issues and they care about the veterans. That’s a huge testament to the DU community in general — that there are people willing to dedicate their time and effort to mentor students and help move these projects forward.”

For Denver resident Susan Jorgen­son, the clinic was a godsend. When her husband — a former Marine and Marine Reservist — died in 2001, a paperwork er­ror led her to believe she was eligible for no military benefits at all. A visit to the VAP — prompted by a new accountant and an attorney friend who was familiar with the clinic’s work — put things in a new light.

“I met with Mike, as well as a senior law student and a first-year,” Jorgenson says. “Mike, being a Marine, knew what to do, and they found out why [my initial claim] was rejected. It was huge. Just to walk into their office and have three sets of eyes looking at me and listening. I said, ‘You have no idea what it’s like to have somebody listen to my case.’”

Less than two months later, the VA deposited $20,000 into Jorgenson’s checking account. She gets an additional $1,200 every month, nontaxable — money she didn’t know she had coming to her until she visited the VAP.

“It’s an amazing feeling,” Vessels says of a successful appeal. “You know it’s going to change their lives.”


Supporting vets on campus

In 2018, U.S. News & World Report ranked DU 59th in the nation in its Best College for Veterans category. The recognition is thanks in part to the outreach efforts at the Sturm College of Law and the Graduate School of Professional Psychology, but it also has a lot to do with the services and programs the University has in place to support the veterans in its own ranks.

Three years ago, DU hired Damon Vine — an eight-year Navy veteran — to revitalize its Office of Veterans Services, which assists student veterans from the moment they step on campus through their life as a DU alum. Much of the job involves explaining the intricacies of the GI Bill and the Yellow Ribbon Program (DU recently upped its funding for the VA program that helps to fill the financial gap between public and private school tuition), but the office also provides a place for student vets to gather, share stories and help each other through the transition from military to academic life.

“The office is sort of a sounding board for students who aren’t used to higher ed, particularly undergrads who come in frustrated with some of the things that they encounter, and they just need to come in and sort of let off steam,” Vine says.

Veterans Services also is home to a 24/7 student lounge staffed by two VA-funded work-study students. Veterans often come on nights and weekends to escape the pressures of home life and enjoy the camaraderie of other veterans. Through the closely associated Student Veterans Association, Vine hosts events for student-veterans throughout the year — everything from a military appreciation week to a vet-themed hockey game to an end-of-year barbecue — and travels around campus to educate faculty and staff on veterans’ issues.

“I go to different departments and talk about veteran culture and why a veteran might sit in the back of the room with his back to the corner where he can see everything,” Vine says.

He also administers Right Foot Forward, a mentoring program that pairs student veterans with business­people in industries in which they’re interested. Students and mentors meet regularly to discuss career options and network with other professionals. They also receive resumé and cover letter advice from DU’s Career Services and a free suit from Brooks Brothers.


Focus on the future

As veterans continue to go back to school — the Post-9/11 GI Bill will dole out more than $12 billion in 2018, helping nearly 800,000 individuals — it’s imperative that universities con­tinue to find ways to serve them, Hyde says. And the need for mental health and legal services for vets continues to grow as well. It’s a niche he sees DU growing into nicely.

“I think we have definitely created, in the past few years, some very strong building blocks and cornerstones to becoming a university that’s very focused on and geared toward military members and veterans,” Hyde says. “Between Damon’s work with the Student Veterans Association, the Veterans Advocacy Project, our work in the Sturm Specialty, I think we’re building very strong cornerstones to having this become a very important part of this university.

“Having service members and veterans at our university is going to make us better,” he continues. “It’s go­ing to make us higher profile, we’re go­ing to get better research, we’re going to have better students, we’re going to create better lawyers, clinicians, diplo­mats — you name it. Veterans typically have higher GPAs at DU than the rest of the student body, and they’re involved in more leadership activities. Service members and veterans at this univer­sity are leaders, whether you see them or not. We need more of them.”

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