Penn State

At Penn State, ‘It’s veterans helping other veterans’

Bellefonte alum and Marine veteran Aaron King at Penn State Veterans Plaza on Friday, May 9, 2014. Penn State has several organizations that welcome veterans with open arms.
Bellefonte alum and Marine veteran Aaron King at Penn State Veterans Plaza on Friday, May 9, 2014. Penn State has several organizations that welcome veterans with open arms. CDT file photo

With Veterans Day right around the corner, residents and organizations in the State College community are stepping up their displays of military appreciation. Flags will be flown, meals will be given away and salutes will be exchanged.

And on the Penn State campus, military appreciation is an everyday occurrence thanks to several on-campus organizations that welcome veterans with open arms.

At the Office of Veterans Programs, veterans are given the opportunity to help other veterans navigate the new and sometimes confusing world that is student life.

“When we talk about (Penn State as) veteran-friendly or military-friendly, that’s part of the welcoming atmosphere here,” said Associate Director Ted Timmerman, a 22-year veteran of the Marine Corps. “It’s veterans helping other veterans.”

The office has six full-time professional staff, he said, five of whom are veterans. It also brings on 19 Veterans Affairs work-study students every semester.

According to Timmerman, the office went through a major expansion in the early 1980s, thanks to office Director Brian Clark. In Clark’s 35-year tenure with the office, he started an outreach program where vets will contact other vets and talk to them about coming to the university.

“It’s not recruiting,” Timmerman said. “These are people who have already expressed an interest in coming to the university.”

Once a week, he said, the office gathers information from the office of admissions seeking out any applicants who have checked the “veteran or military” box on the application. That person will get a call from a fellow vet explaining how he or she can access GI Bill benefits and file for eligible student aid and giving details about the campus he or she will be attending.

Penn State is also home to national veterans’ organizations, like Omega Delta Sigma, the official veteran fraternity.

Founded in Florida in 1999, the coed fraternity started as a group of vets who wanted the bonds of military camaraderie to carry over to their collegiate experience.

The fraternity has been active on campus since 2011, said chapter President Mike Johnson, a Navy vet.

“The best thing about the fraternity is we can come together as a group of people with a shared background,” Johnson said. “We’re trying to be a group that’s very involved in the campus with the traditional students.”

Omega Delta Sigma has 30 members, he said. It is recognized by the Interfraternity Council and operates similarly to other Greek organizations.

A notable event hosted by the fraternity is the annual Lt. Michael Murphy Warrior Games, a Crossfit-based strength and endurance test hosted by LionHeart Fitness in downtown State College. The event supports the Wounded Warrior project and raised more than $4,000 for the program last year, Johnson said.

He said the university and his fellow students have always been accepting of his status as a veteran.

“Everyone I’ve had dealings with has been welcoming and love the fact that I’m a vet,” he said. “I’ve never had a negative experience with someone on campus. People are very interested in knowing what I did and where I served.

“For me, Penn State has been the greatest experience as a vet.”

But fraternities aren’t for everyone. For those vets looking for something low-key, the decades-old Penn State University Veterans Organization offers a chance to connect with veterans in a relaxed atmosphere.

“This is an organization that doesn’t put a lot of burden on veterans coming back,” said PSUVO President Joe Enman, a Navy vet. “We try to give them a safe place to go.”

Enman said a lot of vets can feel overwhelmed going from a military environment — with its sense of brotherhood and controlled environment — to a civilian university.

“What PSUVO tries to do is bring these people in,” he said, “allow them to contact other vets who understand what everyone’s been through and give advice and guidance as much as they need it.”

The organization has been around since 1958, Enman said, but hit a low point in the early 2000s when many members left to serve after the 9/11 attacks. PSUVO is now seeing an influx of members with many of those post-9/11 veterans separating from the service.

Timmerman estimated there are about 900 veterans on campus.

“We don’t track veterans specifically,” he said. “Veteran status is self-reported. What we do track is the number of people using GI Bill benefits on campus.”

Penn State’s Military Appreciation Executive Committee has several goals, including honoring military service members and veterans, supporting injured service members and families of deceased service members and increasing academic opportunities to Penn State vets and their families.

Events this year include speakers, performances, a library exhibit, dinners, a Veterans Day celebration and sporting events.

A military appreciation football game is slated for Saturday when the Nittany Lions face Temple with free tickets and “an all-you-can-eat pregame tailgate for active duty service members, Gold Star family members, Wounded Warriors and veterans.”