Opportunity awaits veterans back home

A door opens into a room at Antelope Valley College’s Lancaster campus, representing paths to the future for military veterans and their dependents.

For at least 10 years, the Veterans Resource Center in Room SSV126 has provided a wide variety of services for veterans reentering civilian life and attempting to find their niche in mainstream America. Veterans utilize the facility on weekdays for many purposes, whether they’re seeking assistance in obtaining military benefits to pay college tuition costs; getting acquainted with other service men and women; having a place to study; or just somewhere they can chill and feel comfortable in the environment.

They enter and are immediately greeted at the reception desk. A sizeable open space comes equipped with computers, a printer and conference tables where they can do their homework, and study for tests. Another portion of the room, a lounge area, offers cozy seats to relax or engage in conversations about anything. Then there’s an office where they meet with Program Coordinator Ashley Johnson, who verifies certification of their course enrollments, making them eligible for paid college tuition fees through the Veterans Administration.

“Our primary purpose is the certification of enrollment,” Johnson said. “Every veteran that enrolls brings me paperwork. That enables them to receive tuition and housing benefits. The VA pays their tuition and they receive a housing allowance. That’s crucial.”

Though the funds don’t pay 100 percent of a veteran’s rent, the shared cost shaves a portion from that expense, which makes the difference between the veteran having a roof over head or becoming homeless.

“Beyond that,” Johnson said, “this provides a safe place for veterans to exist. It’s comfortable. I hear them talking about everything from their time in combat to joking and making weekend plans.”

“We provide resources for them to do their work and study. We have computers, printers, a Fax machine, school supplies, snacks, coffee — always coffee. Veterans drink a lot of coffee.”

“It’s a place where they can exist with pride. They don’t have to censor their discussion or bite their tongue. They understand one another. They have a sense of community,” Johnson said.

As program coordinator, Johnson also arranges events that they can attend. In March she organized a luncheon on campus honoring female veterans in recognition of Women’s History Month. In early April the Veterans Resource Center hosted the Veterans Advisory Commission the Los Angeles County Veterans Advisory Commission, attended by eight commissioners and an audience of about 60 people, where veterans openly discussed their concerns.

Johnson has planned a barbecue in the Fine Arts quad on May 22 for Memorial Day. “We’ll have yard games, a memorial wall with photos of veterans no longer with us, and we’ll also present the Fallen Soldier Table,” a symbolic gesture of items including a plate with a napkin and utensils wishing the veteran was still present; a long-stem rose representing the family in mourning; a wine glass upside down; a lemon wedge for the bitter loss of life; salt for the tears shed; and numerous other items.

In addition to the commencement ceremony for veterans who graduate Antelope Valley College, a Veterans’ Graduation Reception scheduled for May 29 — where veterans will receive an AV College coin with all the branches of service and a red, white and blue cord that they wear over their gown at commencement.

The mission statement for the Resource Center says to “provide assistance” through education, certification and guidance to military veterans and their dependents.

Tyler Morris, 26, and Zhenghao Huang, 24, are two of the veterans who frequent the facility.

Morris served in the Marine Corps from 2012-2016 and was a first level corporal initially stationed at Camp Pendleton and then for two and a half years at Camp Schwab in Okinawa, Japan.

His impression of Japan: “It was a really good experience. I would definitely go back. I was a mechanic on trucks. It wasn’t (a career) I wanted to pursue. When I got out, I had a four-month hiatus, while I figured out what I wanted to do.”

He entered college to study administrative justice, then changed to kinesiology and ultimately pursued wildland firefighting. He worked toward an Associate of Science degree in Wildland Fire Technology and completed the Wildland Fire Academy. He earned enough certifications to qualify for a job in Oregon but must still take a test as part of the application process.

“I’ll be leaving in May.” When asked why he decided on wildland fire fighter, Morris said, “It feels like I’m serving again in a sense, and it’s not a desk job.”

About the Vets Center, he said, “It changed my life. I didn’t really talk. I talked enough to get by. Since I’ve been coming here, it helped transition me better. I didn’t know much about college. I found out a lot about benefits and financial aid. It’s a place I can go to get away from the world. All my friends are here. I found one person that served in the same battalion as me. That was really cool. It was good to see someone who got it — shared experiences.”

Huang served in the Navy from 2013-2018, first in Pensacola, Fla., and then in Twentynine Palms. He was a hospital corpsman, what he described as a medic in the Navy. His first station was shore duty and his second station was attached to the Marines.

“We did regular sick call hours. It opened my mind and my skills when it comes to the medical field. I’m currently changing my major. I wanted to do firefighting, but I suffered a back injury. I decided nursing is my goal for now.” Huang is also considering optometry in the future.

Asked what he enjoys about the campus Vets Center, Huang said, “usually every month we have MREs (Meet, Relax and Eat) twice a month, a gathering of the vets, usually at breakfast. It’s given me the opportunity to meet other vets. I can do my homework here, using the computers. I just have a place to study. Last week on Wednesday there was a veterans meeting in the Student Lounge. We met with representatives from Veterans Affairs and discussed issues, the GI Bill, getting care from the VA clinic, also calling the VA.”

Johnson said the age range of veterans who seek services runs between 22- and 50-years-old. But older veterans stop by just to chat or have some coffee, some that served in the Vietnam and Korean Wars. “It’s their service that connects them. The veterans’ community in the Antelope Valley is pretty close knit.”

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