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Beyond the uniform: Veterans in VCU’s student body apply their unique perspective to everything from art to business

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"Folded Flags," one of a series of flag pieces by Alicia Dietz, Army veteran and graduate student in the School of the Arts

Virginia Commonwealth University currently has more than 400 students and nearly 200 faculty and staff who are veterans or active-duty members of the U.S. armed forces. They play a critical role in the life of VCU, working and studying in fields across the university.

At VCU, we are committed to serving our veteran and active-duty students as well as they have served us.

“These women and men add much to the rich diversity and legacy of excellence that is fundamental to VCU,” said VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D. “We thank them for their service, and for all that they contribute to VCU. At VCU, we are committed to serving our veteran and active-duty students as well as they have served us.”

VCU’s Military Student Services office aims to do just that, by providing special programs and services to help student veterans transition to college life. The office serves as the students’ central resource for navigating the paperwork and other requirements of the GI Bill and other veteran-focused student benefits, while also providing a central hub for veterans.

Veterans use the offices for a quiet place to study; to meet with other veterans, including as part of the university’s Student Veterans Association; and to learn about veterans-related events and activities. Stephen Ross, director of Military Student Services, said his office is focused on helping student veterans navigate college from application through graduation and the securing of a job. The office oversees Green Zone training for faculty and staff to ensure they understand the specific issues veterans face and can advocate for them.

The office also provides resources for life issues beyond education. For instance, experts on topics such as real estate, careers, taxes and health care have visited campus recently to speak with student veterans.

“On a military installation, the support they receive is off the charts,” Ross said. “We want to be able to provide that level of support at VCU.”

Below we share the stories of four of VCU’s student veterans, who demonstrate the breadth of experience and diverse interests veterans bring to the university community.

 


Art Swartwout

Art Swartwout
Art Swartwout

When Art Swartwout left the Army last year, he knew he wanted to go to VCU — it was the only school he applied to — and he knew he was headed for an MBA with the intention of starting up a leadership coaching business.

His direction hadn’t always been so clear, though. At one time, the Baltimore, Maryland, native dreamed of becoming an emergency room doctor like George Clooney in the 1990s nighttime drama “ER” and of going to culinary school. Neither career path worked out, but his time in the Army provided a launching point for a different route.

As a career officer, Swartwout first served as a combat specialist commanding tanks in Iraq and later as a logistics specialist in charge of a 110-person company in Afghanistan. “After 10 years of telling people what to do, I decided I wanted to spend the next part of my career advising people what to do,” Swartwout said. It was his last two years at Ft. Lee, first as a teacher and then as a training and curriculum developer, that solidified his next career phase — and place to call home.

Swartwout started VCU’s MBA program in the School of Business last January and is scheduled to complete his studies in May 2017. This past summer, he got his first taste of business consulting when he traveled to Cyprus as part of the business school’s International Consulting Program. He and his team helped a recycling company identify ways to convince people to recycle appropriately.

I’m not going to limit myself to anything.

Art Swartwout at Fort Drum
Art Swartwout at Fort Drum

The leadership coaching company is part of Swartwout’s five-year plan, and he talks about taking a three-pronged approach with individual and group consultations along with teaching in a university setting. He may specialize in midlevel management because that’s where he ended his army career. But he’s still working out the details.

In the meantime, Swartwout will focus on classes and bolstering the Student Veterans Association as the new president. Under his leadership, the organization has membership for the first time in more than a year, and they plan to be active and engaged, such as helping to host a BBQ and food drive for the RamPantry on Veterans Day.

“I’m not going to limit myself to anything,” he said. “I’m still finding out a lot about myself and after just one semester of business school, I felt like I understood the world better.”

As for Richmond, it has everything he wants — a real city independent of a military base, restaurants for the foodie in him, beautiful architecture and it even reminds him a little of home.

 

Alicia Dietz

Alicia Dietz
Alicia Dietz

Ever since she was a little girl, Alicia Dietz knew she wanted to fly helicopters. She would accompany her mother, a registered nurse, to work and would watch in awe as medevac helicopters arrived at the hospital with new patients. Later, in high school, she contacted some medevac pilots and asked where she could learn to fly like them. They said the military. So that’s where she headed, stopping first at Ohio University, where she participated in ROTC, and then joining the Army as a second lieutenant.

She eventually made her way to flight school where she trained to pilot the helicopters that had long captivated her. In May 2003, she joined a unit that had already deployed to the conflict in Iraq. Her first flight out of flight school, her very first mission, was over wartime Baghdad.

“I learned a lot really quickly,” she said.  

Dietz served for 10 months in Iraq, flying VIPs, equipment and troops in Blackhawk helicopters. Stints in Germany, Alabama and Alaska followed. She rose to the rank of captain and became credentialed as a maintenance test pilot. After her time in Alaska — one of her dream stops and an experience she describes with still-fresh wonder — she served on the Sinai Peninsula with a 12-country multinational unit upholding the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.

You see the world from a different perspective.

Throughout, Dietz did what she had imagined doing when she was a kid, flying over new, exciting lands and viewing the world from above.

“It never got old for me, especially flying over some beautiful place and you bank one way and then you bank the other way … there’s just this lightness you feel,” she said. “You see the world from a different perspective.”

However, Dietz had another passion to pursue. She had grown up doing woodworking with her father and grandfather and then had haunted woodworking studios at some of the bases where she served. She knew she wanted to delve deeper into that interest. So she left the Army after a decade of service and spent two years at the Vermont Woodworking School, refining her technique, expanding her knowledge and serving a summer internship in San Diego with the influential artist Wendy Maruyama, who urged her to challenge herself with more conceptual work. Answering that call brought Dietz to the nationally ranked M.F.A. program in craft and material studies at the VCU School of the Arts.

At VCU, Dietz said, her teachers and classmates have pushed and encouraged her. The experience has been intense and fulfilling, she said. Dietz’s work often examines her military experience and the experiences of other veterans. She still refers to her old unit from Iraq, Alpha Company 5-158th, Aviation Regiment, as “my family” and wears a bracelet bearing the name of close friend Sara Knutson, an Army captain and fellow helicopter pilot in Alaska who was later deployed to Iraq and killed in combat. 

For
For "Fallen Soldiers," Dietz has handwritten the 6,831 names of the U.S. service members who have died in Irag and Afghanistan since Oct. 10, 2001. "Some people I know are on there," she said. "It took a long time to write some of those names. It's a penance for me, a healing process."

Dietz said her work tends to focus on the military out of both interest and a sense of responsibility.

“I feel like I have to do something with this opportunity in service of those who can no longer continue,” Dietz said.

One reason Dietz has embraced being an artist is the focus it provides. Veterans like her often appreciate structure, she said, as well as a clear purpose. When she works on a woodworking project, whether it is a piece of furniture or a more conceptual art piece, she becomes absorbed with the task at hand, as though it is another mission. For this reason, Dietz hopes to teach woodworking workshops to veterans, helping others like her find the same satisfaction in the craft she has found.

To view a portfolio of Dietz's work, visit www.aliciadietz.com.

 

Royce Yung

Royce Yung
Royce Yung

Two years ago, Royce Yung had a decision to make, and he knew it wasn’t going to be an easy one. A Navy veteran, Yung had been working as a logistics and procurement analyst for a Department of Defense contractor in the Pentagon when his employer’s contract was not renewed following sequestration. Yung, a graduate of the Naval Academy with an MBA from Averett University, figured he could find more work in the same vein in the Washington, D.C., area. However, he knew there was a tougher, more enticing choice out there, too.

Yung had long been interested in pursuing a career in health care, despite the dramatic change it would require in his life. In fact, before he left the military full-time in 2007 — following 16 years between the Naval Academy and the Navy — he had considered making the shift and had quizzed a number of service members with health care backgrounds. Now, set adrift from his dependable job, he decided that if he was ever going to make the leap, this was the time to do it.

Yung researched schools and career fields, ultimately landing on pharmacy. Needing a number of prerequisite courses at the undergraduate level first, he applied to VCU and was accepted. He rented an apartment in Richmond and enrolled this fall at the age of 43 as a pre-health student.

Yung said being “easily double the age of most of my classmates” has proven to be a large adjustment for him. The styles, music and even phrases prevalent in the classroom sometimes seem “completely alien” to him. More than that, though, is regaining the rhythm and mindset of being an everyday student. There is no time for anything but studying, eating, exercising and sleeping, he said. Yung hopes to complete his coursework in three semesters and then apply to graduate pharmacy school.

Yung joined the Navy straight out of high school as a technician. He spent three years in that role before accepting an appointment to the Naval Academy, where he majored in oceanography. He graduated and returned to the Navy full-time as an officer, serving for nine more years in the Supply Corps as what he describes as a type of military business manager. He traveled to numerous states and eight different countries while in the Navy, and he moved frequently, counting 11 new post assignments during his tenure.

When he left the Navy full-time in 2007, Yung transferred to the Navy Reserve, and he remains a reservist. Between 2011 and 2013, he served as second in command for a 300-person reserve unit based in Williamsburg with 10 subunits in five different states. 

Both in pharmacy and in the military, lives depend on you following processes and procedures correctly.

Yung said he sees clear connections between the military and pharmacy fields. He said both are people-oriented and emphasize customer service, while leaning on what the military calls “procedural compliance.”

“Both in pharmacy and in the military, lives depend on you following processes and procedures correctly,” he said.

So far Yung is finding the path to a new career challenging, but he is excited about chasing this other interest further. He envisions one day finding a position at a VA hospital or working for the U.S. Public Health Service, interacting directly with patients as much as he can.

“I want to be able to see the progress and results of my work,” he said.

 

Kevin Hopper

Kevin Hopper
Kevin Hopper

You might not expect that a student in your class has ridden in Iraqi truck convoys, trained around the globe and accounted for millions of dollars in military equipment.

But Kevin Hopper has.

In a 20-year Army career, Hopper took on increasing responsibilities for outfitting the materials troops needed to train, fight and get home safely in the U.S. and abroad. Later as a noncommissioned officer, Hopper would supervise and train less experienced troops.

“I enjoyed being a leader,” Hopper said.

Among the highlights were outfitting a new division headquarters; accounting for hundreds of vehicles and 30 to 40 shipping containers from a decommissioning unit; and training Iraqi forces.

At VCU, Hopper, 43, is a junior pursuing a bachelor’s degree in psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences. Aside from classes, volunteering and his student-worker position with Military Student Services, Hopper has a desire common to veterans: finding his place.

I’m still trying to find myself all over again.

“I’m still trying to find myself all over again,” he said. “That’s the biggest problem with veterans, overall. Society, I believe, takes us for granted, and they don’t realize everything we sacrificed.”

Growing up in Syracuse, New York, Hopper followed his brother into the Army in 1991 after a stint studying criminal justice.

“I needed it, the discipline to start life on my own,” he said. After basic training, he took advanced individual training as a unit supply specialist. He compares it to a comptroller — ordering supplies, watching budgets, maintaining records and taking accountability for the property an Army unit needs.

When the invasion of Iraq was looming, Hopper decided to leave a position in a recruiting unit to help prepare and outfit a Fort Hood battalion for battle.

“We had to order everything — I’m talking from computers, desks to an ambulance for my medical company,” Hopper said. “We only had eight months to get everything together, become a unit, get trained for war and deploy.”

In Iraq, Hopper helped train Iraqi officers in charge of logistics for truck regiments. That included instances of riding through the country as the only American vehicle in a convoy.

“We took turns until they understood the routes, and understood what to do,” he said.

While his unit suffered no loss of life, Hopper lost two good friends in Iraq.

“We were really close. That hit me pretty hard,” he said. “They are on my mind all the time.”

Hopper said it took the perspective of coming home — and reviewing the work they had accomplished on paper — to see the impact. “I realized that we did a lot over there,” he said. His service overseas earned Hopper the prestigious Bronze Star.

Later assignments included transferring equipment from a decommissioning unit in Weisbaden, Germany, and helping to oversee project management for a new division headquarters building at Fort Bliss, Texas.

After retiring out of Fort Bliss, Hopper and his family moved to the Richmond area. Having taken online coursework during his time in the military, he decided to press forward at VCU, starting this fall.

Hopper says he is inspired by the insights and eloquence of his fellow students.

“I’m really enjoying myself. I get up in the morning and I look forward to coming to school,” he said.

Twenty years (and five days) of service left a mark on Hopper’s body and mind, including tinnitus, hearing loss and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“You have your days, here and there,” he said.

Looking to the future, Hopper, who also works for Carquest and as a FEMA-certified housing inspector, hopes to eventually earn a master’s degree in psychology and become a school counselor.

“I like to help people,” he said. “I want to help the next generation, because they need it.” 

For a Veterans Day message from VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., see http://blog.president.vcu.edu/2015/11/11/honoring-ur-veterans/

 

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