Standing down, stepping up
Nov 09, 2012 (The Record - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Veterans at San Joaquin Delta College once met in a cramped office on the third floor of the Budd complex -- too far from the counselors and advisers they needed, and too close to the weight room across the hall, where the constant clanging of barbells interrupted their peace.
Now they've moved to a spacious room in Delta's three-year-old student services building, where more than a dozen computers are available for students to do homework or register for classes. There are textbooks for loan, couches for lounging on and a separate room for a private talk.
More valuable than these, however, is the companionship of friends who served their country at their own peril, and are now trying to resume their lives by going back to school.
The first person they see when they step through the doors is Stan Rapada, a career Navy man who is now a financial aid specialist at Delta and is assigned full time to the vet center. This is the first time Delta's center has been fully staffed and consistently open during business hours.
It's not just about giving students another place to study, Rapada said.
"It's more an emotional and physical thing," he said. "I have veterans who cannot function unless they're sitting in a corner watching everyone coming in and out. I try to make it so they feel secure and safe in here."
He tells them that they're no longer on duty -- their watch has ended and their mission has changed.
"Your mission is now you and your family," he tells them.
One of the area's Veterans Day weekend activities will be the dedication of the new center on Saturday. It will be named in honor of Leo Burke, a Marine who served in World War II and went on to become a leader in the local veterans community. Burke, who died in 2010, also was a longtime member of Delta's Board of Trustees.
About 400 Delta students receive veterans' benefits, said Tina Lent, assistant director of financial aid. The real number of veterans enrolled at the college is likely much higher.
Jeddidiah Mack, 28, of Manteca said the new center is a huge improvement. Now the vets are in the same building as the college's admissions, financial aid and counseling services.
"It's amazing, compared to what we had before," said Mack, who served in the Navy for six years and deployed to the Middle East on the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The center helps veterans deal with the hoops and hurdles of college enrollment. That's especially important at Delta because so many classes have been eliminated; failing to follow the process can mean not getting the classes you need.
Mack also values the camaraderie. "We're all cut from the same cloth here, and I felt comfortable here from the first day," he said.
Elizabeth Manske, 53, of Stockton lost her home and her job in the past year. So she's going back to school. She needed help enrolling and found it in the center, because she served in the Coast Guard more than 20 years ago.
"They're able to give me a road map of what I need to do," she said. "When you're in the service, you have this ethic of always looking out for each other, and I'm grateful."
Contact reporter Alex Breitler at (209) 546-8295 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit his blog at recordnet.com/breitlerblog.
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