Pitt Vets provide emotional, academic support for student veterans

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Pitt Vets provide emotional, academic support for student veterans

Pitt Vets holds a yoga session in the William Pitt Union on Monday. John Hamilton | Visual Editor

Pitt Vets holds a yoga session in the William Pitt Union on Monday. John Hamilton | Visual Editor

Pitt Vets holds a yoga session in the William Pitt Union on Monday. John Hamilton | Visual Editor

Pitt Vets holds a yoga session in the William Pitt Union on Monday. John Hamilton | Visual Editor

By James Watkins / For The Pitt News

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When Vietnam veteran Jay Sukits came to Pitt’s campus to study math and economics in the early ‘70s, he didn’t get a warm welcome.

“When I returned from Vietnam and got on campus, my fellow veterans and I were simply treated terribly by many students and faculty at the University,” Sukits said. “The war was unpopular to many, and we paid the price.”

The war was especially unpopular among college students, who led a hefty number of anti-Vietnam demonstrations during the ‘60s. Classmates called him a “baby killer,” Sukits said, and he was afraid to hang out near the veterans services building for fear of being criticized.

When he had to miss a test for an obligatory duty with the Pennsylvania National Guard, the professor gave him a 0. The school, he decided, had a glaring problem: it lacked a support system for soldiers returning from war.

After reading an article about an official student veteran association at the University of Kansas in 2007, the now-business-professor and a small group of student veterans formed a group that same year specifically dedicated to veterans at Pitt: the Pitt Veterans Association, or Pitt Vets.

“Upon reading it, I knew Pitt needed an organization like this,” Sukits said. “There was no way for veterans to band together and help each other on campus.”

The original Pitt Vets formed to help student veterans network within the University and give them an opportunity to get involved in community outreach. That group fizzled due to poor communication and leadership issues, Sukits said, but re-formed last December. Under the helm of Edwin Hernandez, current director of Pitt’s Office of Veteran Services, Pitt Vets still serves as a network for former military members and will soon amp up efforts to offer them academic tools and resources.  

The group sponsors yoga sessions at the beginning of each week to help veteran students relax after classes and schedules guest speakers to talk to their members about how to transition from the military world to the academic one, such as Dick Durr, a veteran and successful local businessman.

Hernandez went to work reviving the club as soon as he arrived on campus last spring. According to the website of the Office of Veteran Services, there are about 500 veterans on Pitt’s various campuses — which Sukits said makes communication arduous — and Hernandez wanted to offer a place for them to connect.

“I wanted Pitt Vets to serve as a way to increase awareness of these individuals on our campus and give them a way to congregate at the school,” Hernandez said.

To kickstart the new incarnation of the group, Hernandez organized a large-scale introductory meeting Sept. 25 for students interested in leading and joining.

The group is committed to the same goal as its predecessor: building and maintaining a support group for U.S. military veterans who are now students on Pitt’s campus.

“We’ve developed a group that allows us to help veterans with their transition to student life. We hope to remain focused on that transition moving forward,” Hernandez said.

According to Hernandez, this transition is difficult because veterans enter the student body later than traditional students and have added responsibilities, like raising families.

Hernandez has even recruited members of veteran families to help with Pitt Vets. Elise Latsko, a first-year business major, has been an active member of the group since Hernandez approached her at the Office of Veteran Students Open House Social in September. Latsko — whose father served in the Navy for 20 years — said though she isn’t a vet herself, she grew up with military influence.

After her father retired seven years ago and she came to college, she missed the familiarity of like-minded people.

“[Pitt Vets] allowed me to connect with the Office of Veteran Services faculty and other military-affiliated students on a personal level, which is something I didn’t expect to have here,” she said.

A large part of the organization is about connecting veterans with employment and networking opportunities. Pitt Vets and ROTC cadets at the University are working to form a tutoring program with the assistance of Christopher Kirchhof, coordinator of transfer student services at the Swanson School of Engineering. Kirchhof approached the group this year with an interest in giving veteran STEM students a helping hand earning their degrees.

This is how Pitt Vets has most helped Navy Corpsman Nicholas Gatto in a rigorous academic environment.

When I have any issues, they take care of them immediately,” the senior biology major said.

According to Alex Austin, an Air Force veteran, president of Pitt Vets and a grad student studying energy and environment, this tutoring network will be a huge help to veterans because they’re all used to working in a team in order to stay safe in the military.

Austin knows he can’t stick around forever, and he’s well aware of what Pitt Vets needs to remain strong so that no one will have the experience Sukits did all those years ago.

“To have that camaraderie, to learn what other veterans have experienced, is vital to sustaining a healthy community for our members,”  he said. “Knowing that things are better after I leave will keep me satisfied.”

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