Veterans make Dickinson their new home
by Michelle Simmons
February 23, 2010
Military veterans often see Dickinson from an older, different perspective. “I’m definitely an outlier here,” says Nathan Toews ’12 (left). Next to him are Christy Gray ’11 and John Wilderson ’14, who will be a Yellow Ribbon Scholar in the fall.
On June 13, 2006, as Nathan Toews ’12, then a sergeant in the U.S. Army, leaned against his Humvee during a break in fighting, a rocket-propelled grenade slammed into the truck, blasting shrapnel everywhere. His supply convoy had been en route to Kandahar, Afghanistan, returning from the Musa Qala district, when it was ambushed by Taliban fighters that morning.
Toews’ right thigh was torn open from hip to knee, and his right wrist shattered. Shrapnel pierced his right eye and skull, lodging into his brain.
“I don’t remember anything that happened after I was hit,” he said in an interview for Hidden Battles on Unseen Fronts, a collection of essays and stories about soldiers with traumatic brain injury. The book is available in the Waidner-Spahr Library. “Months later I was asking everyone, ‘So how did I take it?’ ”
He received the Bronze Star and Purple Heart but spent nearly two years undergoing multiple surgeries and grueling physical therapy. During his recovery, he decided he wanted to help other veterans with similar injuries; he considered getting a psychology degree but has since chosen sociology.
And despite his brain injury’s lingering effects, Toews maintains a 3.5 GPA, writes for The Dickinsonian and is involved with the cancer-fundraiser Relay for Life. He’s also participated in two Serve the World service trips—one to Guatemala and another to New Orleans—and plans to go again this spring. “I enjoy helping people,” he says. “I [see] this as an opportunity to go somewhere and help people and not be in a combat situation.”
A yellow ribbon
Toews is one of a handful of military veterans currently at Dickinson, and the college has a long tradition of welcoming vets during peacetime and wartime alike. With the inauguration of the Yellow Ribbon GI Education Enhancement Program, the campus community may be seeing even more in the coming years.
The program is an extension of the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act, passed in 2008, which provided funding for vets at public universities and colleges. Benefits include tuition, fees and housing and book allowances. In 2009, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) expanded those benefits as the Yellow Ribbon Program to students attending private colleges.
Veterans determined eligible by the Department of Defense may be considered for a Yellow Ribbon Scholarship at Dickinson. Under the program, the college will meet up to $15,000 of any additional tuition costs with scholarships and grants, allowing the recipients to attend college virtually for free. They may use the benefits themselves or transfer them to their dependents. Several dependents already have received Yellow Ribbon Scholarships this year.
The national response to the VA program has been phenomenal. “The VA had this huge rush in August,” says Judy Carter, director of financial aid. “The program was put into place right away, and it turned out to be much bigger than everyone anticipated.”
John Wilderson, a former U.S. Air Force staff sergeant, will be the first veteran to enroll at Dickinson under the program when he joins the class of 2014 this fall. He spent six years in the Air Force and was deployed to Iraq twice, working on aircraft munitions for F-16 fighter jets, C-130 transporters and KC-135 air tankers. “We did everything but put them on the aircraft,” he explains. “We built and delivered them.”
Between deployments, he was stationed for three years in Italy then three more in Utah. While in Italy, he immersed himself in the community around the base and established a Boy Scout troop. It was his experience there that led to his decision to enroll at Dickinson.
“I focused my searches on what I wanted to learn, and that was Italian,” he says, adding that he hopes to return to Italy to work . Meanwhile, the avid hiker plans to conquer the 2,178-mile Appalachian Trail before classes start in August.
GI Jane takes Dickinson
“I’m from this area, and I was yearning to get out,” says Christy Gray ’11, who grew up in Marysville, Pa. “There was a lot of patriotism, too. And feminism—you know, GI Jane stuff.” Gray joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 2001 and served for five years as an air-traffic controller—first in Iwakuni, Japan, then Camp Pendleton, Calif.
The former sergeant is now married, has a 4-year-old daughter and is one of Dickinson’s few commuter students. She began her college career at Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC), became a member of Phi Theta Kappa and transferred to Dickinson last fall.
An art & art history major, she’s especially interested in historical preservation and finds the college to be the ideal site for her studies. “With my interest in historical buildings—I just love this campus,” she says. “I was ecstatic about getting in here.”
As a result, Gray wants to share her experience with future transfer students. “I’m proud of where I am right now. I’m making it on my own,” she says. “I think it’s great that Dickinson’s opening things up, and I’ve told people at HACC, ‘you know, you can do this.’ ”