Appreciation day honors U veterans

Editor’s Note: This is the third article in a series looking at how new Minnesota laws affect the University.

Liz Riggs

A mixed crowd of veterans, family members, students and faculty faced frigid conditions Wednesday to honor the University’s student-veterans as part of a tribute ceremony on Northrop Plaza.

Student-Veterans Appreciation Day – as the event was billed by organizers – was intended as a day to recognize the University’s student-veterans, who number about 500 at the Twin Cities campus alone, and showcase the University’s newest programs to assist veterans with the transition to college life.

Geoff Barker, a counselor at One Stop Student Services who works with some of the student-veterans and served on active duty in the Air Force from 1975 to 1981, said the event was a symbol of changing times.

“Had it been 20 years ago, you wouldn’t have had something like this,” Barker said, about the day of recognition.

Mary Koskan, director of One Stop Student Services, said the number of veterans enrolled at the University is on the rise.

“In the past two years, we have seen an increase in the number of student-veterans at the University of Minnesota,” she said.

Koskan said the establishment of a Veterans Advisory Committee has been an important bridge in facilitating improved services and events for student-veterans on campus.

It was through such communication that the University became aware of some student-veterans’ desire for a public veterans recognition.

“A number of veterans suggested having a veterans appreciation day that coincided with Veterans Day,” Koskan told the audience.

National Guard Spc. Scott Russell, a University sophomore who recently returned from Iraq, attended the ceremony.

Russell served in the 34th Infantry Division and was one of more than 1,000 troops initially denied benefits under Chapter 30 Montgomery GI Bill because his orders were issued for 10 days short of what was required for eligibility.

Russell, who had to try to prepare for fall semester from Iraq, said the University and the One Stop Veterans Office were “very helpful” in addressing his needs.

“It’s nice to get all these people to come and support the vets,” Russell said.

In thanking the University’s veterans, University President Bob Bruininks officially announced plans for a veterans tribute at TCF Bank Stadium.

The original Memorial Stadium that preceded the TCF Bank Stadium was built to honor the veterans of World War I, Bruininks said.

In the same tradition, the new stadium “will continue the legacy of Memorial Stadium,” he said.

The tribute, which had design input from a group of veterans, will feature an 18-foot-high curved wall with an inscription.

The structure will be both visible and accessible from inside and outside of the stadium and will likely be used as a staging site for future military ceremonies and veterans events.

It was also announced at the ceremony that the Gopher football team’s first opponent for the opening game at the new TCF Bank Stadium will be the U.S. Air Force Academy Falcons.

Several current and former lawmakers were on hand for yesterday’s tribute. State Sen. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, and former Sen. Dean Johnson, who now serves on the Board of Regents, both attended. Representatives for U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. and Norm Coleman, R-Minn., were also present. Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty was scheduled to make an appearance, but canceled to attend funeral services for a Minneapolis park police officer killed in the line of duty.

As evidenced by the political figures in attendance, it’s not only the University that has been working on improving programs and services for veterans.

Several new laws to come out of the last legislative session directly impacted military personnel and their families.

One such law, which took effect Aug. 1, gives service members the opportunity to opt out of certain contracts without incurring a penalty, if they are deployed for military service. Cell-phone plans, gym or club memberships and service and rental contracts are all covered under the new law.

State Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, who was not present at the event but authored the House version of the bill, said that in the past legislative session particularly, the Legislature worked diligently to address the needs of troops and will continue to do so in the future.

“That’s a strong commitment from the state, from both political parties and all branches of government,” Winkler said.

In speaking directly to the dozens of student-veterans gathered with family and friends yesterday, Aaron Ledebuhr, a veteran himself and an active officer at the Veterans Transition Center on campus, thanked them for their contributions.

“Without you and your service, freedom would only be a dream,” Ledebuhr said.