-We all have stories.
You have to tell your story.
You have to help educate that -- you know, your -- your peer, that student and that professor.
They may not want to listen to what you have to say.
They may not agree with you, just like you may not agree with them.
But -- But you're our best ambassador.
-I am now actually a department service officer, so I have more training.
And what I do as a volunteer, about 30 -- between 30 and 40 hours a week, I volunteer my time helping veterans not experience the difficulties when they get out by making sure they get everything they're entitled to.
-Got the opportunity to become a recruiter.
Did it for about 13 1/2 years.
I loved it.
It actually helped me help other potential candidates join the military, find their way, as well.
And I share my story a lot.
I mean, I shared that I bounced from house to house, you know, ate weird food from weird places, just, you know, did what I had to do to survive.
♪♪ -Under the best of circumstances, transitioning from military service back to civilian life is jarring.
For me, after being wounded, I was medically retired, and the transition was unexpected.
Hi, I'm Stacy Pearsall, retired Air Force staff sergeant.
And today, I'm sitting down with Ron Novak, Brigitte Marker, and Romaine Byrd, three veterans who've also had their own transition stories and are now helping other veterans navigate that difficult process after action.
-♪ There will be light ♪ ♪ There is a road ♪ ♪ Marching on ♪ ♪ Coming home ♪ ♪♪ [ Rotors whirring ] ♪♪ [ Birds chirping ] ♪♪ -Well, thank you so much, Ron, Brigitte, Romaine, for joining me at my house.
And I look forward to learning a little bit more about your stories.
Obviously, each and every one of you have your own experiences from your time in service.
But I think why I really brought you together here today is to talk about what you're doing after service.
I think that is equally as important.
I hope you'll humor me a second, because I want to share with you a little bit about my experiences and... so, why I think this topic is maybe one of the most important we'll ever have.
I spent 10 years in the Air Force as a combat photographer, and I lived my life in the fast lane.
All I ever wanted to do was to keep doing that job.
And I envisioned myself staying in the service, making it a career, and doing 20 or more, if that was possible.
Well, going to combat, when you're on the tip of the spear, sometimes you get on the losing end of things.
And unfortunately, that happened to me.
I was medevaced in 2007 on my last deployment, and I started a long road of recovery, and it took 18 months.
While I was still on active duty, I was still wearing a uniform, I was still reporting in to my unit, and I hid everything from them, from the level of pain I was in to just how dire things felt for me inside, both physically and emotionally.
In the back of my mind, all I kept thinking about was what the next step was for me in the military.
But suddenly, when I had an appointment with one of the doctors, he was like, "I'm sorry to say this, but you're not going to spontaneously get better.
And I'm really sorry to tell you that it's degenerative, and it's going to continue to get worse."
I had prepared myself for a lot of things, and to hear that my career was over was not one of them.
I don't know about you, but the military was my identity.
It was my family, my support network, and all I had lived for in those moments.
And when I found out just how dispensable I was... my heart was broken.
I don't think anybody could have prepared for me how hollow I felt inside after that.
I had to rely a lot when I came home on my unit to take care of me in many ways.
I had a hard time letting them do that.
But there were some instances where I had no choice.
My husband was deployed.
I had needed them to take me to some of my doctor's appointments 'cause I had to go under anesthesia.
And sometimes, they just wouldn't show up.
And sometimes I had to take a taxicab, which was awful.
And walking into a room at my unit and seeing people just kind of [Voice breaking] get up and go the other way was really hard.
A sense of rejection in every way.
And then -- [ Inhales deeply ] [ Sighs ] I should have had my whole life ahead of me.
[ Sniffling ] [ Crying ] But...
In those moments, everything had been taken away from me.
So when you don't have anything or you feel like you don't have anything, then finding the motivation to move forward is really hard.
I think for the sake of my husband, I just put one foot in front of the other, and I was kind of putting on this charade that everything was okay.
[ Sighs ] So I did like everybody teaches you to do in the military.
You know, you rub some dirt on it.
You move forward.
Take a little Motrin, and you keep moving forward, and don't -- don't talk about it.
So I was burying it deep down inside.
For all intents and purposes, people looked at me, and they're like, "You look absolutely fine to me," because I wanted them to see that.
I had done really, really good hiding the pain I was in.
What was terrible was I wasn't doing myself any favors.
I wasn't letting them help me, I wasn't asking for help, and I wasn't showing the true me.
And then I went into the VA system searching for something more and only finding another door closed in my face.
So, the Air Force put me on temporary retirement.
They said, "Well, we'll give you a couple years, and we'll circle back and see if it gets better," 'cause I wasn't ready to give up yet.
I wasn't ready to let them give up on me.
So I went into the VA system.
And I walk in, and I'm -- As a 27-year-old female, I'm in a room predominantly male, predominately older, and oftentimes looked over by even the VA staff and even my fellow veterans.
I would be gawked at, catcalled, whistled at, or the other way would be like, "Oh, you're -- It's so great that you're bringing your husband to his doctor's appointment."
Or, "Hey, can you tell me where the," you know, "this medical area is or that medical area is?"
'Cause I couldn't possibly be a veteran.
I just felt more and more alienated.
So where did I belong?
I wasn't in the military anymore.
I wasn't accepted in the veteran community.
I wasn't a civilian, or at least I wasn't ready for that.
Nobody had prepared me for that.
And then two years passed by, and I'm eking my way through.
I had enlisted.
I raised my right hand, and I said, "My life is yours.
Do what you want with it."
And I gave it to them, and I gave everything to them.
And then when they said, "That can't happen, and we're not going to do this anymore.
We're going to take that from you," they didn't give me a manual about how to un-be who I was or to prepare me what the next step was.
[ Sniffles ] When you are serving, that is the highest ask anybody could ever ask any individual to be part of, when it's service above self.
When it's your life for others, nothing matches that.
I guess what I'm getting at is for two years, I lived in a limbo, and for two years, I thought about suicide, because I didn't think I had anything else.
Nobody told me there was anything else.
No one showed me that there could be anything else.
Of course, a lot has happened since that time, and I've had several epiphanies and a lot of self-reflection.
When it came time for the military to finally let me go permanently, they were ready to just discharge me with a severance pay and send me on my way.
But I thought, "That wasn't the plan.
I wanted to stay, and you're saying I can't."
You know, it was an implement of war that ended my career.
What do I have to do to prove that -- that I am worthy of whatever things I had allegedly earned?
They said, "Well, if you want to do that, then you've got to go to a med board."
So they flew me down to San Antonio, Texas, and stood me in front of three perfect strangers who'd never met me in their life, only saw me as a number on a piece of paper, and then accused me of all the things that I was lying about in terms of my medical condition, not once acknowledging my combat experiences or my combat trauma.
All they ever thought of me was just somebody they wanted to save money on, move onto the next case, and I felt awful.
Leaving the military was one of the worst experiences I have ever had in my life.
I don't ever -- and I mean this -- ever want anybody to feel so disregarded as the way I did when I left the service.
So whether you served 1 year or you served 22 or 30-plus, each and every one of you who raised their hand and offered their life in service deserve so much more than that.
So why have I brought you here?
Because each and every one of you are doing incredible things in your own paths to help veterans who may have been in places like me find that transition point.
Brigitte, you were sort of on the front lines of that transition.
And I want to talk to you a little bit about your experience in service, 'cause I think that colors what you do and -- and how you relate to other veterans.
Do you mind sharing?
-Your story was so much like mine.
I had to fight to go to boot camp.
Graduated, the happiest day in my life.
So proud, I didn't even take the uniform off when I got home.
I just wore it on vacation to show everybody how proud I was.
-Three years of Coast Guard service led Brigitte Marker to a lifetime of volunteering with the Disabled American Veterans organization after she was injured, disabled, and discharged from service in 1998.
Due to her own challenging experiences with the Veterans Affairs, Brigitte volunteered for the last 25 years helping other veterans navigate the complicated disability and benefits system.
-I even reported to my duty station a week earlier than I should have.
So, in the Coast Guard, you have one month to get boat crew qualified.
There's no way a person can do it in one month, especially when nobody wants to help you, because you have to be underway to learn the skills you need to know.
They wouldn't get the boats underway to train me, to learn -- to teach me the things I need to learn.
So of course, 30 days, I got put on probation and basically had to report to the duty station every day.
And I had to be there from 7:00 until 5:00 every day studying.
Nobody helping me, nobody saying, "Here's what you should be focusing on."
Just put in a room and say, "You can't leave the room."
-Why do you think they weren't helping you?
-I wouldn't go party with them.
I wouldn't sleep with them.
I wouldn't do the stupid things they were doing.
So, I was older, and I just wasn't a partier.
So I had no interest in doing any of that, and I think partly maybe that was it.
-So you kind of seemed like an outsider, maybe.
-And then the boat crew -- I was on boat crew as a trainee, and we said, "We're going to do a -- We're going to go do a bar report."
And when we do bar reports, we're reporting the conditions on that area.
We knew we had a storm moving in.
So it became even more important, because we restrict -- The Coast Guard can restrict the bar, meaning that they can restrict it to private traffic, so by length of boat or all restriction.
The only thing they can't restrict are commercial.
And we went out, and he said, "We'll do some man overboard drills."
Part of the training as a boat crew is to practice and do man overboard drills.
We got out to the bar.
We have 30-foot waves, wind-driven chop, meaning the wind was collapsing the the waves at the top.
And it was messy.
And when I say messy, waves were coming from all directions because of the wind and the current.
The coxswain, the guy who drives the boat, said, "We're canceling training.
These are not the conditions to train in."
We're starting to get ready to batten down and head back to the station when all of a sudden, I turned, and I watched this fireman throw the life ring in the water, which initiates a man overboard drill immediately.
The look on the coxswain's face was priceless, 'cause he had just been -- he had just ordered no drill.
Our crewman, qualified crewman, and I are trying to get the stupid life ring back onboard.
It's not that simple when you have waves crashing into the boat, and it just pulls it right back out again.
I gave Alan, the crewman, a skiff hook.
It's a long pole that has a hook on the end.
Said, "Let's try that."
So he leaned over the side of the boat.
I had ahold of him, and we got hit broadside by a 30-foot wave.
The 44 rolled about 40 degrees.
He went into the water, almost taking me with him.
But since I had my arm wrapped around a stanchion, I didn't go anywhere.
We just had to now get him onboard.
So I'm trying to pull the 200 pounds of weight.
And I had him about 3/4 of the way up, and we got hit again.
And this time, I had nothing to hold onto.
He fell, and all of that weight came down on my shoulder and my lower back.
And I felt my lower back go right then and there.
I didn't say anything initially, because I thought, "Oh, they're just going to make it harder for me."
So, we finally get him onboard.
We go back.
I report that I was injured.
Didn't know to the extent of which it was.
The next morning, I was doing boat check-offs on one of our other boats, our 30-footer.
The forward survivor cabin has a steel hatch.
Weighs about 75 pounds, and there's no way to not bend over.
I did everything I could.
I knew I was in trouble.
My back hurt really bad.
I felt the disk blow.
That instant shot of pain collapsed my legs, and I laid on the deck, and not one person came and checked, who saw me go down, asked me what was wrong.
And I managed to finally get up, and I walk in to tell the C.O.
I was hurt.
And before I could, the X.O.
came out of his office and said, "Your dad's on the phone."
My grandpa had just died.
I was home for two days, and I had no feeling from the waist down.
So I come back early from emergency leave to tell them "I don't feel -- I can't feel anything from below my rib cage.
And they're like, "Just take some aspirin."
-"Just take some aspirin.
There's nothing wrong with you.
Tomorrow morning, we'll take you to medical."
They take me to medical, and he says, "Oh, you just have a pulled muscle."
Finally, my dad called my commanding officer and said, "You don't get her an MRI, I'm suing you."
-I was down, and gotten an MRI.
Two days later, I walk back with the MRI in hand.
I have a herniated disk, and they said, "No, you don't.
There's nothing wrong with you."
-So even after all of that, even after all the proof... -Yeah.
-...they still weren't listening to you.
-They weren't listening.
I mean, it seems out of this world -- like, that would never happen.
And there's so much more to your story than that.
But I want to ask you, you know, like, critically thinking, how has that impacted what you're doing now?
Because what you're doing now is so incredible.
-The doctor at the Coast Guard clinic at Petaluma said, "When you get out --" Because at this point, I had requested a discharge, medical discharge -- said, "Contact the DAV."
-Which is -- What is D-- -Disabled American Veterans.
-I decided, "You know what?
Let me see what the DAV does.
Let me see what else I --" So I joined the local chapter.
Well, by that October, I was certified as a service officer.
And what I do as a volunteer, about 30 -- between 30 and 40 hours a week, I volunteer my time helping veterans not experience the difficulties when they get out by making sure they get everything they're entitled to, because I have found more and more the branches of service don't tell them anything.
You know, don't tell them, "Make sure your medical record is correct before you get out."
They can't tell you you can't look at your medical record.
I'm not just one of the service officers just files the paperwork and goes away.
I actually fight and advocate.
I was telling I think you this morning about the atomic war veteran that I fought for for five years.
VA kept saying his skin lesions and skin cancers were from -- from sun exposure 'cause he was a roofer.
It was actually because he was marched into the Nevada test site, and an atomic bomb was set off to see how people -- humans reacted.
-All of you have probably went through the VA system at some point.
I know when I was -- when I was getting medically retired, I'm literally, like, in that pipeline for that transition, and I didn't know my ass from a hole in the ground.
And they were literally trying to get me through that process.
Nobody says, "Okay, here's your standard operating procedure for navigating the VA." -Yeah.
-Tell me, Romaine, how was your VA experience?
So, my VA experience was -- I got the, what is it, benefits at discharge, so I was one of the lucky ones.
-For 22 1/2 years, Romaine Byrd went the extra mile while guiding new recruits to their careers in the Army by mentoring them, fostering their educations, and even driving them to their appointments.
After his own retirement from service, Romaine continues to support those same individuals by helping them find meaningful civilian employment through his current position at Hire Heroes.
-When I submitted my retirement paperwork, went through the process, the six months -- actually as I was doing the transition course, they came in and did my claim then.
-Man, you're lucky.
-Yeah, so -- -Dang.
So, my last day in uniform I want to say was February 31st.
April 1st, I had -- I had my claim back.
I got a decision with money in my account.
-Not everybody has that luxury.
-Ron, what was your experience?
-Mine was somewhat similar to -- to Romaine's, but -- So, I was fortunate enough to have some friends that had gone through the -- through the pipeline before I did when I retired.
And they all told me, they said, "Look, you've been in the Army for a long time.
You've written a lot of operations orders.
You've briefed a lot of operations orders.
You've done brief backs, et cetera.
Treat this like it's an operation."
And it really didn't sink in until I went over to the hospital, and I had requested my medical records.
Now, I've been in Army for a number of years, and when I went over there, they gave me my medical records.
So I'm thinking they're just going to give me a disk and -- No, it was a -- it was a photocopier paper box that was filled on both sides, and then the disk was on top of that.
And they picked it up and slid it across and said, "Here you go, Thank you for your service," whatever that means, "and good luck, you know, and let us know if anything else."
-Transitioning to the civilian workforce after 33 years of Army service provided retired Army Colonel Ron Novak firsthand knowledge of the jarring reintegration process.
As the executive director of the Office of Veteran and Military Affairs at Syracuse University, he uses his experiences to bridge the gap between the veteran student population and the civilian counterpart.
-And so, you know, I went home and sat down with my wife and, you know, I said, "Okay, well, I'm going to figure this out," right?
So over a weekend, I chronicled my whole military career through my -- through my medical record.
And so I went, okay, here's my MEP station physical from 19-- -Oh, the duck walk.
-Exactly, the duck walk and stand on the -- you know.
So it was from 1982, signed at the Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, MEP station.
And I just started pulling things together.
And again, I had people that were in the pipeline ahead of me that that said, "Look, you know, when you go to the VA at this point, they are so overwhelmed that when you sit down with the folks at comp and pen, they're not going to have the time to sit down like, you know, maybe your primary care, you know, doctor to -- and know who you are.
So they recommended that I, you know, categorize everything based on, you know, musculoskeletal and, you know, just sort of break everything down, and take copies with you when you go.
-And so I sat down and separated everything, you know, put the little piece of paper on there, the, you know, little Post-it note.
And, you know, I chronicled my whole military career.
I went, "Oh, wow, that happened to me at Fort Polk, Louisiana.
Hey, that happened to me at Fort Bragg.
Oh, I remember that."
So, I started pulling this all together.
Again, some good advice -- You know, they said, "Don't start your claim there.
Wait until you get to Syracuse."
So I waited till I got to Syracuse.
I took all my own copies.
And, you know, the lady sat down with me in musculoskeletal and said -- as an example, and she started going through everything.
And she -- You could tell she just wasn't prepared.
So I said, "Ma'am, let me just walk you through this."
-"No, I got this.
I'll show you."
-So I went into my little -- I went into my "civilian" -- I'm air-quoting my "civilian" assault pack now, 'cause I got rid of the military assault pack, and now it's a backpack.
So I went into there and started giving her everything, and so she was able to get through there.
And had I not listened to the folks that had gone before me, friends of mine and, you know, fellow soldiers, soldiers that I had served with, you know, who were under my under my command -- -Can we pause right there and take note of this?
Nobody in the Army, big "Army," came to you and said, "Ron, go through your medical records and make sure that you outline it for your VSO and for your VA." Nobody did that for you.
-No, nobody did -- -They still don't do that.
-They still don't -- -Why is it a word-of-mouth type of thing?
Why is that?
-Well, they put the onus, if I can -- I'll let -- -Yeah.
-So the -- While I'm on a roll here -- So, the Army out-- They put this into the TAP, in Transition Assistance Program for you to get this briefing about -- -Which is death by PowerPoint.
-It is, but it all depends.
Either you're gonna have someone that's gonna come over from your local hospital that's gonna walk you through it, or a VA rep that's close by, or you're going to get someone who's contracted to do it.
So depending on your camp post or station, your experience with that briefing is going to differ.
And so I walked out of there going, "Okay, I heard what they were saying," but I wasn't really listening, because I had other people that were giving me better advice then and a VSO that that was that was giving me better advice than what I got during TAP.
-Listen, I was in the Air Force.
We had TAPS class, and I think it was a work week long, right?
And you're just inundated with almost useless information.
And the one thing that I keyed in on was the VA rep who came in who were like, "Well, you're going to enroll in the VA, and you can get XYZ care."
And it was so superficial.
It drives me bananas that we spend weeks and weeks and weeks turning civilians into military members.
And then we give, what, a few hours of a few days... -That's a great point.
-...kicking you back out?
And no guidance whatsoever.
-We'll go back onto that, but I'm going to pass it to Ron.
-Yeah, no, actually, Romaine, I'm sorry I cut you off.
I'm going to turn over to you about your experience on -- with the VA. -Yeah, no, I honestly think, I mean, even in basic training, it's, you know, "Shut up, drive on, you know, rub dirt on it" and, you know -- -Right, "Take some Motrin."
-Yeah, you know, so the whole time that you're going through the ranks, I mean, you know, as soldiers, airmen, you know, sailors, we don't keep really good track of our medical history.
You know, so 18 years down the chute, it's like, okay, well, you need to prepare to get out, and you hadn't been to the doctor or, you know, you got all these ailments, and you never kept track of everything that you had going on.
So now when you get to the VA, and it's like, okay, well, I need to file a claim, well, what are you claiming?
You don't have a history of any type of medical issues.
-Trick with that, and a lot of people don't know that is on your discharge physical, you mention it, and all of a sudden, it happened in the military.
And even if you didn't, within one year of discharge, if you've been -- or get start getting treated for it, the VA will give the benefit of the doubt that it was caused by the military.
-You see, I didn't even know that.
-I want to piggyback on what you said, Romaine, 'cause I think this is really important.
There is a climate in the military that to say you're in pain is weakness.
To go get medical help is to be a waiver warrior.
You know, you're getting a waiver from P.T.
or you want to get out of work.
Like, so you just kind of maybe push through the pain a little bit.
-Because heaven forbid, you go to get a waiver, and you take a break from P.T.
-You do not want to be labeled as a, what is it, sick call ranger?
That's exactly it.
But here, you know, if these are lessons that we can pass on to others, please, please don't do this to yourself.
Because, you know, you may be saving face in front of your friends, but in the long run, when you become our age, you are not doing yourself any benefit.
-You're going to regret it.
-Yeah, but if you -- You know, it's a great point, but I think all of us were in in the '90s, you know.
So there was that culture in the military in the '90s where, you know, at least in the Army, there was that zero-defects Army, right?
You know, and so depending on your rank, you didn't go to sick call.
Out of sick call hours, you went and talked to the P.A., right, who was a captain, you know, and would prescribe you something and -- -Motrin.
But, I mean, I can remember I was a company commander in the 82nd Airborne Division.
And one night on a jump, I just landed the wrong way.
And my left foot rolled over and had a bone stick out of the side of my foot.
It didn't pierce, but it was just a bone that had stuck out.
And it hurt.
-Just a bone sticking out.
But again, I mean, you know, so it was just a bone, and it hurt, and I iced it.
And eventually, you know, we went on a 5-mile run, and I was hobbling, and I made that run and then had a battalion commander said, "Hey, you need to go get that checked out."
And I went up and saw the -- I went up to Womack Army Hospital and saw the doctor, and, you know, he looked at me.
He said, "Look, we're going to have schedule for surgery."
I'm like, "Whoa, whoa, whoa."
[ Laughter ] "Hold on, hold on, hold on.
Let's pump the brakes here."
And so I immediately went in -- I started thinking about career.
Wasn't thinking about myself.
I was thinking career, et cetera, just like all of us probably would at that point.
And I immediately went to, "Okay, so what are some mitigating strategies?
You know, what can we do in lieu of this?"
And you know, it was, "Well, hey, you can -- You know, we can give you a brace.
You can do this.
You know, it's a small break in the bone.
So -- But it's sticking --" It didn't pierce the skin, but it was sticking out.
So like, "Look, it'll harden over time.
You should be okay."
-Can I ask you really quick?
-So -- -Why did you not want to do surgery?
-Because, again, it's the '90s, right?
So, you know -- -You didn't want to be out of work?
-I didn't want to be taken out of company command.
-I don't think I would have been removed from command, but -- -But you just wanted -- You wanted to stay in the fight?
-Wanted to stay in the fight, but more importantly, still wanted to lead soldiers and couldn't lead by outstanding personal example if I wasn't the one being able to jumpmaster an airplane or -- -Did you ever consider that you were setting another example by not doing the surgery?
-You know, in hindsight, probably so.
You know, fast-forward later on as a battalion and brigade commander, my approach was different because you're always looking out for the welfare of all your soldiers and families.
But, you know, you're not going to look out the welfare for yourself.
So, yes, to answer your question, back then, no, not at all, you know, 'cause, you know, the 82nd is all bravado.
It's all testosterone.
It's, you know, you're, you know, that's what it is and like a lot of the divisions.
But, yeah, I never really thought about myself more so than I thought about, you know, the unit, the greater good, what I was doing.
I wasn't worried about my health.
-You're there, and you get to see so many veterans kind of getting back in the classroom, which, okay, for any of us who've been out in the world and in the military and seen some things, and then we go back, and we're an underclassman?
What kind of struggles are you seeing in terms of, do they have problems integrating?
-Making that decision, when you're transitioning into higher ed's going to be tough, right?
I mean, there's a lot of unknowns.
You know, research shows that you have, you know, transitioning service members that go into higher education, you know, to better themselves, to gain the knowledge to get employed, which, you know, that's what you go to school for.
You know, at Syracuse, I, you know, I break it down pretty easily.
It's, you know, recruit the veteran or family member who's transitioning out to come to Syracuse, work to retain them, to keep them there, and then you get them to graduation, and then we have someone on the back end to employ them.
And then over the course of these past six, seven years, we've created community, created a community and a sense of belonging at Syracuse University.
And, you know, we just -- we opened up Daniel and Gayle D'Aniello National Veterans Resource Center at Syracuse University in 2020.
That's part of creating the community.
That's the stake in the ground for us.
That's the -- You know, that's the flag in the ground.
But we created this community then that was able to move our veterans, our student veterans and our military- connected population, specifically our veterans from those low retention and persistence graduation numbers.
-Obviously, you keep mentioning community, and that's the one thing I wonder.
We as a veteran community tend to be really, really close to our chest in terms of those experiences.
The language we talk is completely unknown to people outside of those who haven't lived in, you know, in the military at some point.
How does this community translate what we're saying and what we're feeling and what we're experiencing to our civilian counterparts?
-So, part of it's cultural training, cultural competency.
That's something that we do, that we open up to our faculty, staff, and our employees that want to help our student veterans succeed.
We have what's called an Orange Door Liaison program.
I always say over couple of cups of coffee in the morning on a Saturday, you can, you know, get a pretty good feel on what's, you know, what our veterans have gone through and, you know, just some basics on military service.
And so as they're walking through the College of Arts and Sciences or the College of Engineering and Computer Science, they walk by, and they see an orange placard on the door, they went, "Wait a minute, hold on.
Professor Pearsall is back there.
She took the time.
Wait, she might be a vet, or maybe she's a family member, but she took the time to learn about me."
Once they earn -- someone earns their trust, and they have the trust to go inside that door to ask for help like you did when you went to Behavioral Health.
So you've got a student veteran who we all know, "Hey, I want -- I'm going to figure this out myself."
"I don't need your help."
Now, at higher ed, that train will run you right over.
You have to ask for the help.
So to be able to go up, knock on the door, and say, "Professor Pearsall, do you have a second?"
"Hey, come on in.
Shut the door," that is very, very powerful.
That helps create community.
That helps bridge that civilian-military divide.
You have a story, Stacy, Romaine.
We all have stories.
You have to tell your story.
You have to help educate that -- you know, your -- your peer, that student and that professor.
They may not want to listen to what you have to say.
They may not agree with you, just like you may not agree with them.
But -- But you're our best ambassador.
You're an ambassador of the service, your, you know -- and your service experience.
-And so if they don't take that on, then, you know, and take that on at the university, or if they're in the civilian community, in their communities, and they don't take that on, then you're complicit.
You know, you're not helping the greater good of all of us and others that have come before you to help pave that way, you know, to make that transition better for you.
-While I'm talking about Syracuse University, that was a really pivotal time in my life was education.
And when I was there, I learned a lot.
Obviously, if you serve, and if you're eligible, when I went in in the '90s, you had to buy into the G.I.
So they, like -- -I did, too.
-I remember it was like some sort of matching.
-It was like $100 a month for a year.
And when you're dead broke E1, that was a lot of money.
So I had earned my investment in the G.I.
Bill, and then 9/11 happened, and then we all got G.I.
Bill, which was incredible.
But it originated from World War II at Syracuse University.
You want to share that with us a little bit?
-Yeah, so, you know, Syracuse had a chancellor by the name of William Pearson Tolley.
He was our wartime chancellor in World War II.
And he's pretty good friends with a guy by the name of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
So, you know, so the war's -- World War II's getting ready to wind down.
And, you know, so you have the War Department and the President trying to figure out what are we going to do with all of these returning World War II veterans from both the Pacific and European theaters?
So Franklin Delano Roosevelt asked Chancellor Tolley and a handful of other chancellors and presidents throughout the United States to come down to Washington, D.C., to figure out what we're going to do with this.
And what popped out of that convening was the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, which we all know as the original G.I.
You know, arguments can be made that, you know, that original G.I.
Bill essentially, you know, rebuilt America, put the middle class into the United States.
-Right, so giving them the -- offering them that next step of what happens after after action?
What happens after that?
And then, you know, you fast-forward to the post-9/11 G.I.
Bill, which, you know, is the most gratuitous VA education benefits since the original G.I.
That original G.I.
Bill, you know, as a veteran, you couldn't transfer that benefit over.
But post-9/11 G.I.
Bill, it -- you could transfer it to your family members.
And so I did that when I retired, transferred it to my two daughters and one month to my wife.
So now we don't have to -- as veterans, don't have to worry about our benefit, you know, expiring on the shelf.
So we're able to keep that, which I think is great.
-Romaine, I realize that what led you to service really impacted how you help veterans not only when you were helping them come into the military, but helping them come out of it.
Can you talk to me a little bit about your experiences coming into the Army and what your job -- a little bit what it was, and what you're doing now?
So, kind of unique story.
My mom died when I was super young.
She passed unfortunately from bone marrow cancer.
Really haven't a whole lot of contact with my dad, so just kind of floated through the system for a while.
Had a recruiter talk to me about joining.
I really, eh -- I didn't really want to pay it any attention.
But once I got 17, in that little range, I was like, "Well, you know, hey, what am I going to do?"
I knew I didn't want to be hungry.
So, you know, the recruiter sold me on the, you know, position as being a mechanic.
And that's a whole other story.
I don't even want to talk about that.
But the worst mechanic ever served.
So, got the opportunity, initially joined just to have, you know, roof over my head, food.
Got into it, actually saw that it was more than just, you know, that.
It actually became a family to me.
Got the opportunity to become a recruiter.
Did it for about 13 1/2 years.
I loved it.
It actually helped me help other potential candidates join the military, find their way, as well.
And I share my story a lot.
I mean, I shared that I bounced from house to house, you know, ate weird food from weird places, just, you know, did what I had to do to survive and actually help me, you know, transition, you know, to, you know, where I am now, as well as help other, you know, potential people find their way.
The work I do now, I work for Hire Heroes USA.
We help veterans with their transition, not only veterans, military spouses, veterans, and transitioning service members, you know, with their employment search.
So whether it's, you know, writing a résumé, job coaching, mentorship, networking, anything that's going to help them find employment, that's what I'm there for.
So for me, it's kind of full circle, because I went from actually, you know, putting service members in boots to now in suits.
You know, and I enjoy it, you know, so... -Well, it is definitely needed.
How do you translate an 11-Bravo which we like to call 11 Bang Bang or, you know, grunts -- -You talking about as far as job-wise?
-Yeah, I mean, how do you translate -- -Oh, that's simple.
That's a senior -- or it could be senior security manager, senior personnel advisor.
I see what you did there.
That was interesting.
[ Both laugh ] Can we talk a little bit about, you know, some of the things that civilians may look at on a résumé that may be a hindrance for us?
Yeah, so, I try to tell, you know, a lot of my guys just, you know, "Thank you for your service."
I got that.
You know, you got combat time.
You, you know, handled and, you know, expert at multiple weapons.
That's something you may not want to put on your résumé.
-Because of a stigma?
-Well, not only stigma, but, I mean, you have to get past the applicant tracking system.
And unless you go into private security or, you know, want to be a police officer, there's really no room in the workforce for actually having a weapon.
-You know, just, so, having people understand that, you know, thank you for your service, but let's get you employed.
-Yeah, especially if you want to work at the post office, you don't want to put anything about weapons on there.
-Yeah, that would be bad.
-And that is really complicated.
-That was a joke, guys.
-No, I get it.
I got it.
I got it.
[ Laughter ] -Yeah, I think we all got it.
-Obviously, anybody who's looking at a résumé who says, "Oh, you were a lieutenant colonel, or you were a full bird colonel.
Wow, a one star-general.
Damn," you know, obviously this means that you've had leadership skills.
But if you look at a résumé that says, "Private First Class Johnson," what does that read like?
-So, we stay away from rank.
I don't think I've ever done a résumé or prepared a résumé that actually put the person's rank.
-Why is that.
-Just for that stigma.
Number one, a lot of people don't understand it.
Two, the stigma that a colonel may be far more knowledgeable than a private.
So, you know, we want to put everybody on the same playing field.
Highlight key skills that this person has done, you know, with his short time in the military.
If he was a security manager, then let's find out what you did well and how we can add this information to your résumé.
Like I said, we stay away from anything that's dealing with combat or anything that is going to let somebody know or give the perception of you, you know, potentially going postal, so... -Let's pause on that for a second.
Do you think this is one of the bigger things that maybe need to be translated between the military community and the civilian community?
Like what can employers do to educate themselves about who we are as a community?
And the things that we find totally badass and that were really hard-earned in the military, we whitewash for the benefit of them and our ability to get employed.
-So what can they understand better to be like, "Damn, I really did not appreciate that until I was educated"?
-Did you want to -- -No, go ahead.
I was just -- -No, I -- -Feel free to weigh in, like, any-- everybody.
-I honestly don't think there's a way to kind of, you know, bridge that gap or change the culture of, you know, civilian companies, you know, having that stigma, I mean, because there's so many different outside influences that, you know, just kind of weigh on that military community.
I do think the military can do a better job at educating the civilian sector.
-You know, invest more time in military personnel that are getting ready to separate.
You know, instead of TAPS being one week, make it actually a year.
You know, I know you being colonel?
What was your final rank?
I retired as a colonel.
-Yeah, and I know they probably wanted you to work till the day that you took the uniform off.
-They did, but I made a conscious decision to give myself the time, you know, 'cause I had helped transition so many other soldiers, family members out and gave them the time to do that.
I needed time for myself and my family.
-Yeah, and that's rare, because... -It is.
-...a lot of times, you don't get that.
You don't get that time to kind of build yourself and prepare yourself.
-So, I have -- Sorry to interrupt.
-One of the things that I did down in Klamath Falls is we had businesses actually come say, "Will you give a briefing?
Why should we hire a veteran?
What is it that they bring to our company that might be beneficial?"
I mean, I gave a two-hour briefing, and by the time I left, they were like, "Wow, we never realized that.
All we hear is the, you know, the bad things, the, you know, they come back with all these messed-up heads, and we never realized all the stuff that they do that would benefit our program."
-And then I would follow up, you know, after they'd had a hiring fair or whatever and say, "Well, how did it go?"
They're some of the best employees.
They show up on time.
-"And they do their job."
-You're not wrong.
-And it's like, "We want to hire more."
-Part of transition, and you see it, is -- So do you -- is you have to create your civilian identity.
-You have to reinvent yourself.
You have to reinvent -- But now -- But then what you also need to do is create your brand, 'cause part of what is going to happen to you, whatever your degree discipline is and what you want to do post-graduation, is you're going to have to create your brand.
You're going to have to sell yourself, right?
So, we can tee everything up for you, but you got to go in, and you got to close the deal.
And so you're probably a sophomore standing, typically.
So you got about three years.
So we got three years to work with you on getting you comfortable to talk to people.
You know, comb out a résumé.
Get you up on LinkedIn.
Get you into some networking events, right?
Get that professional photo, do all that, right?
That's part of that engagement.
That's part of connecting when you transition in.
But if you decide not to do that and just go over and not want to stay connected with that community, you're the person that's going to come up in the spring semester of your senior year going, "I need help.
You know, Houston, we have a problem."
And that's not the time to do that.
So creating your brand is important when you're looking for a job and also, you know, creating your civilian identity in the process, in that transition.
-I'm so glad you said that, Ron, 'cause I think all of us can relate.
Our identities were basically issued to us the day after we enlisted.
-And we left every part of that behind.
And so no matter if it was four years and maybe you never went to war -- And that's the other thing that people don't really understand is that not everybody who served had to go to war.
That was -- That's not it.
Just merely being in the military is a transformative experience.
It's something that sticks with you.
And so regardless of what that experience is -- And, Brigitte, you and I both know that very few go through that sort of traumatic end to a military career, so that transition isn't so abrupt and so jarring.
No matter what, though, the transition is a journey and a path of rediscovery.
And for some -- And on any level, whether you're dealing with physical or emotional traumas or you're trying to figure out, is academia the way to go or -- -"What do I do now?
I don't know how to do what I did into --" -Absolutely.
"How do I take these skills and experiences, Romaine, and get me a job?
'Cause that's what I want to do.
I'm getting out."
-And try to explain that to a civilian employer who has no clue... -Right.
-...what that entailed.
-And all at the same time, like a chameleon, you're trying to find what your new skin color's going to be.
Like, you're trying to find what your pattern is and what your environment and where you're falling into and who are you?
What are you going to do?
-I mean, just understanding that it's okay to transition.
I mean, it's so -- I mean, it's scary.
-But it's something that many before you have done, you know.
And just using your resources, I mean, that's the most important part of it.
You got to use the resources, people there to help.
Definitely take advantage of it.
-So, tell me a little bit about the path of your military career, 'cause I know you were active duty, active reserves.
So, I got out, spent maybe a year, year and a half in the reserves.
Got pick up as an AGR recruiter, and from there, it just kind of took off.
-What was the key to your success?
Was it word of mouth, like other people who joined the army, like, "You need to go see Romaine"?
-Yeah, just being truthful.
I mean, I kind of -- I was really relatable, and I was really persistent, like my recruiter.
I mean, I would -- Whether good, bad, and ugly, I didn't withhold any information.
-Did you find that your upbringing... ...colored how you interacted with some of these people?
I know when you enlisted, everyone has a reason for joining the military.
Some of them's for education, others because it was a family occupation.
Yours was literally, like, food, water, shelter.
My mom passed when I was 16.
Didn't have a whole lot of family support.
And then when that day came, and she passed, now what?
It was me and my three younger sisters.
And I knew I didn't want them to kind of suffer as, you know, we all did, you know, through those years.
So I joined.
Literally for the first six to eight months, I sent all my my paychecks to my sisters, 'cause I was sleeping in the barracks.
I was eating in the dining facility.
So I didn't need anything.
So basically, I dedicated all that money that I was making, which wasn't much, to them for their survival until they were actually able to kind of stand on their own.
-You're their guardian, in a sense.
-Yeah, and we have a really good relationship even to this day.
Like, you know, 12:00, 1:00 in the morning, we're on the phone still talking, you know, because we're all we have, essentially, you know, so we take care of each other.
-Alright, Ron, your turn.
-So, I grew up in a real small town in Northeastern Pennsylvania, a small town called Weatherly.
Very close-knit community.
I was like, "Alright, I think I'm gonna join the military."
So I did basic training right up the road here at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.
Once I'm done, I wanted to go to Europe.
I was going to stay for three years and, you know, get out and go to college.
That's what I thought I wanted to do.
And started getting promoted, started going to school at night, getting promoted, and made sergeant, then made staff sergeant.
And I had a mentor, you know, a lady who was a lieutenant colonel at the time.
Her name is Jo Rusin.
She's a colonel, retired, full bird colonel, retired.
She looked at me and said, "Staff Sergeant Novak, I think you need to go to OCS."
And I was like, "Nah, I don't want to go to OCS.
No, I want to be a warrant officer.
Nobody messes with warrant officers.
They know their craft.
You know, people come to them.
And I know my craft, and that's what I want to do."
And she's like, "Ah, yeah, I think you'd be a good warrant officer, but I think you'd be a great commissioned officer."
And I was 24, 25 years old at the time.
And so I put in my OCS packet and got accepted, and I made that transition.
And, you know, what started off to be three years' enlistment turned out to be 33, so that was a long three-year enlistment, right?
[ Laughter ] -And I never thought that military service was my calling, but it was.
-You know, you joined the service thinking you're going to stay in three years.
Fast-forward, and you're now leading troops in combat, and there's a lot riding on you as a leader.
Obviously, when you're out in combat, things happen.
And I know what it's like to be on the ground level and to be alongside when things happen, and there's loss of life.
But I wonder, can you share with me a little bit, if it's okay, what that was like from a command perspective and to be a leader at a time of loss?
-Yeah, so, when -- You know, I was very blessed.
I commanded four separate times.
And, you know, decisions that you make in command, you know, are going to directly impact the soldier at the very bottom of that, you know, that E1.
So a lot of times when -- I wouldn't say a lot, I would say all the time when I made a decision, I made that decision thinking about that young soldier, that young Private Ron Novak, who would have to execute that order and execute that mission.
And that sort of kept me grounded.
And during my time there, I lost two soldiers.
And the first, as I was told, was our first -- the battalion's first combat casualty, I think it was either in the battalion's history or since World War II when they were stood up.
And, you know, Staff Sergeant Carletta Davis was killed in November of 2007.
She was a medic, married, three boys.
This was -- She was -- She was a flight medic.
This was her third deployment to Iraq.
There was, I think it was a 500-pound bomb that was buried under the ground.
They didn't even see it coming.
There were no triggers.
And it just -- It took the whole vehicle.
Pretty tough, pretty tough loss.
And so the medics -- I had a Charlie Company, I had a medical company in the battalion.
So they didn't get the official word, but they sort of knew.
And I was -- You know, I had to go down and tell the company.
So that's a pretty tall order to try to figure out, you know, what are you going to say to, you know, 60 or 70 medics, you know, and medical professionals that they just lost one of their comrades?
I knew it wasn't going to be easy, but I thought, okay, just stay focused, you know, at the task at hand.
And got down there and opened up the door to their conference room, and everybody's in there.
And you -- A lot of folks are crying.
As soon as I walked in, they knew.
-And so everything that I had rehearsed just went out the window.
It just -- Whew.
And at that point, I just spoke from the heart.
I spoke what was on my mind, you know, who she was as -- you know, as a person, who Sergeant Davis was as a leader, as a medic, and spoke with empathy and sympathy.
-I think in many ways, because we hold on to these stories really, really close, people don't know the true depths of our experiences or our feelings, and it creates this barrier and this gap between us and them.
And if we can be a little more truthful and take a risk and have some faith and put our trust in them to hear us and to hear these stories and that we can help bring them closer to us in that way and speak from the heart, then maybe -- maybe we can bring our two communities together and to find a way forward where we're all working together as that community and building a deeper, more involved community together between civilians and veterans.
So again, Ron, thank you.
That was tough, I know, but I really appreciate you sharing that.
Brigitte, thank you for sharing.
And, Romaine, your story's incredible, as well.
Each and every one of you are incredible, and thank you for what you continue to do for veterans and for sharing your stories.
-♪ There will be light ♪ ♪ There is a road ♪ ♪ Marching on ♪ ♪ Coming home ♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪