Though Veterans Day is traditionally observed Nov. 11, the Office of Veterans Services decided that celebrating student veterans for only one day is not enough. Instead, they’re dedicating an entire week to the inaugural USF Veterans Week celebrations.
Festivities, which begin today, include food, prizes and other amenities. A play titled “Into the Fire” kicks off the events in Marshall Student Center (MSC) room 2708 at 6:30 p.m., telling the story of veterans who have suffered from either physical disabilities or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The hour-long play will be immediately followed by a student panel of veterans prepared to answer questions about their own real-life experiences.
“Anybody in the military can come out with any level (of PTSD),” said Barbara Bustamante, a junior majoring in chemistry and a medic who treats traumatized soldiers. “From just the difficulty of handling daily life, to nightmares, hallucinations and everything else.”
Director of Veterans Services Larry Braue said Bustamante will be included in the student panel, as well as Christian Bengtson, the disaster services chair for the American Red Cross Club at USF and a senior majoring in chemistry, Michael Jernigan, a junior majoring in history who was left blinded by a roadside bomb in Iraq and Tumeka Turner, a senior majoring in business administration and engineering and a single mother who was forced to leave her child following a call to deployment. Panelists were chosen for their unique experiences and struggles.
“I really want to encourage faculty and staff to come (as well as students) because a lot of these veteran students – they’re in the classroom,” Braue said. “To understand that that student population is a little bit different than your typical student population.”
Bustamante plans to become an officer and rejoin active service once she graduates from USF. She holds the rank of staff sergeant and said she gets “really nostalgic” every time she walks by the C.W. Bill Young Hall.
“Even just seeing one soldier, walking from one class to another,” she said. “When you’re in the military, you’re surrounded by a sea of uniforms, and now that I’m not and I’m here at school, every now and then I see that one soldier who is walking around in a uniform, it’s just – it’s awesome.”
Tuesday’s focus will be on the 1st Annual Chili Cook-Off and Veterans Expo. Each will run from noon to 3 p.m. The Expo’s goal is to inform veterans of the different benefits available to them.
“There (might be) a lot of benefits they’re eligible for that they don’t know (about),” Braue said. “So they can eat chili and talk to somebody about benefits.”
The Cook-Off will feature more than 20 teams, made up of various student organizations, which will cook two to three gallons of their own chili concoctions. Members of the winning team will have their names engraved on a perennial trophy, which will be placed in the future MSC Veterans Lounge.
Tony Rivera, an administrative specialist with the Office of Veterans Services, said the event will appeal to veterans for reasons beyond trophies and free chili.
“The big thing is competition, within the army and within all branches of the military,” he said. “We’re very competitive, so that’s how we talked about the chili cook-off.”
Participants will sample chilis such as P.R.I.D.E. Alliance’s “Bambi Chili,” Campus Recreation’s “Reckin’ Chili” and the Kenjutsu Club’s “Nosebleed Chili,” Rivera said.
The final event is the Veterans Day Ceremony, which begins at 11 a.m. Wednesday in the Martin Luther King Plaza. Bustamante, who is also the president of the Student Veterans Association, will act as the master of ceremonies and introduce keynote speaker retired Lt. Gen. Martin Steele of the U.S. Marine Corps.
“He is a very dynamic guy,” Braue said. “He is a very strong advocate for veterans and veterans’ rights, especially disabled veterans.”
The ceremony may also include a parachute jump. Two jumpers from the Special Operations Command from MacDill Air Force Base are scheduled to make the descent before the ceremony. However, complications have arisen that may put those plans in jeopardy.
Following a botched jump at the Rutgers-USF football game last week, where parachuters had to land in a nearby parking lot because the marching band was still on the field, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) pulled all scheduled jumps involving USF. But Braue said he hasn’t given up on Wednesday’s jumps yet.
“I made some pleads and (the FAA) agreed to meet with us,” he said. “They agreed that we’ll meet (today), and as long as everything goes well, we should be good.”
Rivera said seeing other veterans on Veterans Day is like an “unspoken thank you.”
“On Veterans Day, I see another fellow veteran … and there’s a bond there,” he said. “We’re student veterans. Yeah, our experiences make us a little different, but deep down inside, we’re USF Bulls, too. We’re students just like everybody else. I’m just as proud to wear green and gold as I was when I wore camouflage.”