Giving Thanks: At UMUC Honoring, Serving Veterans and Active Military Students Is an Everyday Event

Like many University of Maryland University College faculty and staff members, Kristin Byerly, director of veteran initiatives for UMUC Stateside Military Operations has deep military connections.

Her husband retired as a captain in June 2017 after 30 years in the Navy. Her dad, also a retired Navy captain served for 29 years. And her son, a Navy ROTC scholarship recipient, graduated from the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets in May 2018 and is stationed in Pensacola, Florida, as a Navy ensign.

“I love the military but have a special fondness for the U.S. Navy,” she said.

Byerly and three of her UMUC colleagues recently reflected on some of the ways that the strong military ties they bring to their work at UMUC help the university create an educational experience from the ground up that recognizes the unique challenges veterans and active military students face, that honors their accomplishments—and that provides them the support they need to achieve their education goals.

She recalled the Navy SEAL diver with last-minute orders to report for a submarine exercise scheduled to take place during the last two weeks of the final class he needed in order to apply to physician assistant school.

“He called from the power boat heading to the submarine and was very concerned. He could not reach the instructor and was asking for help,” Byerly said.

“He sent me a picture of him standing on the submarine with another photo of his watch to document the date and time . . . why he could not be online for the class.”

And he called Byerly from the boat two weeks later to ask whether she and her team had been able to secure a course extension for him. They had.

“He could not even wait to get back to shore. He was that worried about completion,” said Byerly, adding, “This is just one example of what military students do every day to make sure that the job gets done, both at work and school. I could not be prouder to be a military-affiliated [UMUC] staff member.”

Retired Army 1st Sgt. Tang Smith, assistant director of quality and service for the Veterans Certification Office at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state said he is grateful to live in a country that values and supports the sacrifices and commitments that those who have served, who continue to serve—and their families—have made to “a nation and a cause that is greater than they are.”

Tang Smith, retired U.S. Army 1st Sgt. with 23 years of service

Tang Smith, retired U.S. Army 1st Sgt. with 23 tears of service

During his first deployment to Iraq, Smith said his unit, “like most,” had no idea how long deployment would last. “We did not have many of the comforts that tend to make deployments easier to endure.”

But about a year in, actor and Marine Corps drill instructor R. Lee Ermey visited his small camp at Sadr City—and that simple act of dropping by illustrates how “little things” can make a world of difference in the lives of others. Ermey, who died earlier this year, was known for his film roles in “Full Metal Jacket” and “Toy Story,”

“He [Ermey] was one of the most prolific speakers that I know. He seemed to be right at home in our midst, even while eating the notorious Meals Ready to Eat. His visit gave us a much-needed boost in morale,” Smith said.

Now, when he reflects on working for a university with a history of serving military students and veterans Smith concludes, “UMUC gets it. UMUC understands the struggles and challenges that come with being a military student. We as current employees are helping to add to that rich history.”

UMUC Adjunct Assistant Professor Aaron Pease teaches business and management courses in The Graduate School and is the founding partner and principal attorney at Highbridge Law Firm in Washington.

When he thinks about his military past, he said he is most proud of the sailors and Marines that he led in Iraq in 2004 and 2006, who made a huge impact in the preservation of combat power, force protection, and interventional resuscitative medical care of combat operators throughout Iraq.

“During these times, we directed support for over 9,000 clinical encounters representing 34 percent of all Navy and Marine Corps episodes of combat casualty care from 2003 to 2010.”

But Pease said he is also proud that these same sailors and Marines have gone on to become senior enlisted leaders and officers. “Some have left the service to pursue business careers. I even attended law school with a Marine from my regiment.

“These people remain highly motivated and highly dedicated leaders in any community they may find themselves. It is a testament to their families and their training.”

Aaron Pease, former Fleet Marine Force naval officer, and Persian Gulf and Iraq War veteran (OEF/OIF) with 15 years of service

Pease’s own military training has proven a critical asset to his active military and veteran students—particularly in times of their greatest need. Once, one of them—a combat veteran with multiple deployments in Iraq—fell behind in submitting milestone deliverables. After class, the student explained that his supervisor had taken his own life the week before, and he was being “trained-up” to assume new responsibilities.

“I immediately shifted gears from professor to fellow veteran and counselor and we talked about how the student was feeling for a good while after class,” Pease said. “I think the conversation would have been much different if I didn’t have the credibility as an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran to speak with the student about the situation—one vet to another.”

It’s important to understand the realities of serving in a leadership capacity with the students who typically attend UMUC Pease said, adding that they share “certain experiences unique to the demographic and it’s inevitable, at some point, that [the shared experiences] that make our students special will manifest in some way.”

Unlike most other academic programs, UMUC faculty members are uniquely positioned to have a positive impact on students beyond academic training—and should seek to do so, Pease said.

When some think of military sacrifice they think of the loss of life, of injury, or of disability, said Josh Fickes, assistant vice president of Operations, UMUC Asia, Yokota Air Base, Japan. But service members also make sacrifices every day—in their way of life, time with family, or even a place to call home, he added.

“I’m thankful we have people out there who embrace the [military] lifestyle and make it their norm, so they are where they need to be when duty calls.”

In July 2010, Fickes was a noncommissioned officer in charge of the U.S. Air Force Central Command Band and was in theater for 40 days to play for the troops in Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Afghanistan.

“It was difficult to concentrate on playing music when faced with the atrocities of war,” he said.

Josh Fickes, retired Air National Guard Master Sgt. , trombonist and Section Chief, Operations, Air National Guard Band of the Northeast, with21 years of service

The band split into small, acoustic groups to play in the hospital on base and he remembers an incident—a time when they were taken back to a long-term intensive care unit where troops and local nationals alike were being treated for serious injuries—that had an extraordinary impact on his own life.

One of the patients, an American soldier who had recently undergone an amputation, asked them to play “Mustang Sally.” Fickes, who described himself as the default male vocalist in the group, said that though he didn’t know all the lyrics to the song the group was not about to disappoint a service member in need.

“This guy was in bad shape with bandages covering much of his body . . . but he was in good spirits. Who am I to say, ‘No, we don’t know that one.’”

So they played what they knew. They improvised a bit. And about a minute into the tune, an audience began to gather. “At the front was a small Afghan boy who looked to be around 8 years old. He was gaunt, had shrapnel wounds on his torso and face, and was missing his right arm up to his elbow. He was just a child, but a victim of war all the same,” Fickes said.

And as they played, the boy danced and smiled “from ear-to-ear,” and Fickes said he wanted to believe that for a few minutes, at least, the boy was able to forget about all that he had been through and be a “happy kid.”

“That was a turning point in my military career. Prior to that day, it was easy to say, ‘Oh, I’m just in the band.’ But after that day, I knew that what I was doing made a difference in lives and helped paint the American military in a positive light.”

Now, as his role at UMUC has progressed over the years and moved him farther from the “front line” of working directly with students, Fickes said he has kept that same motivation—making a difference. “Having been a military student, I am able to empathize with students, understand the lifestyle, and help them build solutions that are best for them.

“While our rich history of serving military students and veterans has great meaning for us as a part of our heritage, it’s our responsibility to carry on the legacy of those before us and continue serving the military of this generation and generations to come,” he said.

 

Cover Photo Caption: L to R: Kristin’s father Dave Sharp, her husband Jim Byerly, and her son Kevin Byerly