Veterans fighting different battle on campus

Christina Calloway: Staff photo  Eastern New Mexico University student veteran Penny Ortega tells attendees at the Student Veteran  Organization ribbon cutting Thursday that the organization plans to be active in student affairs.

Christina Calloway: Staff photo
Eastern New Mexico University
student veteran Penny Ortega tells attendees at the Student Veteran Organization ribbon cutting Thursday that the organization plans to be active in student affairs.

By Christina Calloway
Senior writer
ccalloway@pntonline.com

There are a lot of obvious differences between a college classroom and a war zone, but Alex Massey knows he’s one of the few walking Eastern New Mexico University’s campus to experience the latter.

After the 27-year-old and father of two gave four years of service to the Marine Corps, he decided to further his education at ENMU. With a lack of resources and support, it wasn’t an easy transition.

“The first couple of weeks, I didn’t know what I was doing here, there was no one to talk to,” Massey said.

Those feelings of stress and anxiety weren’t ones he wanted any other student veterans to feel. Massey and others were proactive in reviving the Student Veterans Organization on ENMU’s campus to help student veterans navigate through college.

The organization had a ribbon cutting for its office on Thursday in ENMU’s Bernalillo Hall.

Air Force veteran Penny Ortega, a senior studying elementary education and future president of the SVO, told attendees she was alarmed at the 77 percent of veterans who quit after their first year of school. It’s a statistic she hopes to change by ramping up recruitment so that other student veterans on campus aren’t alone.

Ortega predicts more than 150 student veterans and active-duty members attend ENMU, which has a student population of 5,800.

“It’s different, it’s hard to relate to this social environment, we’re at least a decade older,” Ortega said. “Having (the SVO) puts you more at ease. Regardless of us being from different branches of military, we can relate. No one thinks we’re weird here, we can lean on each other.”

Massey agrees that their history can’t be understood by civilians, so the camaraderie amongst each other creates a cohesion with peers he didn’t have before.

“This instantly broke me out of my shell. I found other people who were having the same problems as me,” said Massey, who is studying to be a science teacher. “We’re going to be a resource center to give (student veterans) the information they need.”

Ortega said the group plans to be much more active than the previous SVO through community service projects and creating a presence at ENMU events.
“We’ll become more known on campus,” Ortega said.

ENMU President Steven Gamble told the group he sees it flourishing in the future.

“We’ll look back and say this is where it all started,” said Gamble, who is an Air Force veteran.

Gamble commended the group for reaching out to their fellow student veterans. He said when veterans are turned out to civilian life unexpectedly, it can create a downward spiral when there’s no support for them.

New Mexico Department of Veterans’ Services Cabinet Secretary Col. Timothy Hale also attended the event to support the group.

“You’ve experienced so much more about what’s real in the world,” Hale told the student veterans, comparing them to traditional college students.

Jack Martinez, a Navy veteran and self-proclaimed nomad, helped start the SVO with Massey. Though he plans to leave ENMU this year, he wants what was created at ENMU to grow.

“We need more people, we need to get the word out that we want to help vets and active members,” Martinez said.

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