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Coordinator pushes for funding for UW-Whitewater veterans lounge
Janesville Gazette - 11/26/2018
Nov. 26--WHITEWATER -- Back in 2015, Ryan Krebs was in his second semester at UW-Whitewater when a close friend from the Marine Corps died in a car accident.
The military taught Krebs that he could control anything. After his buddy died, Krebs wondered if he had failed him.
Those feelings snowballed with memories from when another friend died years before. Then Krebs got word someone he had worked with in the Marines had committed suicide.
"It kind of pushed me into a dark place," he said.
Krebs decided he was going to end his life.
On the day he planned to shoot himself, Krebs stopped at the UW-W Veterans and Service Members Lounge to see friends. It was the one spot on campus that was "basically time travel back to the best days we had."
There, Krebs saw Dylan Sessler, who wanted to interview him for a class project. In a small side room, Krebs truthfully answered an interview question--yes, he had thought about suicide before--but he did not share his current plans.
After the interview, Sessler choked up and told Krebs he was "glad you're still with us."
"When he said that, it kind of hit me like a brick," Krebs said. "And I just kind of sat in the lounge after that, thinking about, you know, if I take my own life, how is this going to affect the friends I've made throughout my life?
"Especially the friends here in the lounge."
Krebs, whom The Gazette wrote about in 2016, has since withdrawn from UW-W. A traumatic brain injury made his time in school difficult, but the Fort Atkinson native said recently he is trying to return to school.
One person who helped Krebs is Richard Harris, coordinator of Student Veterans & Military Services at the university.
Harris' office is tucked inside the lounge, which is in Andersen Library.
It's now the end of November, and Veterans Day with its accompanying ceremonies has come and gone.
In his role as an advocate for veterans and the lounge, Harris said his department has not accepted some of his requests to add funding to improve the space. However, he stressed he appreciates the continued support from the library and the chancellor.
Krebs said the campus "pretends" to care about veterans during their week of recognition, but officials do not listen to student veterans or respond positively to funding requests.
"It irritates me," he said.
Funding the lounge
Nearly 10 years ago, a survey showed student veterans wanted their own space. Harris said the veterans were coming from a military culture to the civilian world and needed a place to gather.
The library donated the space, and the America Red Cross donated a TV, microwave and mini-refrigerator, he said.
More recently, Harris said his request for a new clock was rejected. So he bought one with his own money.
He also went to the Disabled American Veterans organization in Milwaukee to get $500 to pay for plaques that line the lounge's walls. A Madison restaurant, North of the Bayou, recently raised money for the UW-Whitewater Veterans Fund.
The printer in Harris' office was donated by a veteran, he said, and veterans donated the uniforms that decorate the lounge.
Harris believes the gifts show UW-W veterans have been "bailed out" by other people's kindness.
He said some other schools have more elaborate veterans lounges, and some schools have none.
"We have a great space, but it could be greater," he said.
Harris is still looking for items to improve the lounge, including portable charging stations, a coat rack and two more computers.
The carpet is starting to peel away from the floor, but Harris said that's slated to be fixed.
Harris also wants a regular-sized refrigerator. During an interview with The Gazette, a veteran walked in with several bags. Harris said student veterans tend to live farther away from campus and need a place to leave their lunches.
"His whole world is in those bags," Harris said.
Andersen Library has supported the lounge "tremendously," Harris said in an email. He said Chancellor Beverly Kopper also supports the lounge and "has committed to funding a new lounge with university funds."
Jeff Angileri, a university spokesman, said via email that it "is important to the entire campus community that we provide exceptional support for our student veterans and military service members."
About 378 veterans and military service members attend school at the Whitewater and Rock County campuses, and 302 of them are undergraduates, Angileri said. In May, 71 veterans graduated.
"These individuals proudly served our country, and we are honored they are part of the Warhawk family," he said.
Harris said, however, that he did not feel "sufficiently supported" by his department, which is why he sought outside assistance.
Lauren Smith, director of UW-W Adult Student Learning, the department that oversees Harris' responsibilities, said in an email she had "nothing to add" to Angileri's statement.
Asked if Harris should be paying for items out-of-pocket or soliciting donations, Angileri said the university is "committed to being responsible stewards of the resources entrusted to us."
But resources are finite--and both Harris and Krebs have acknowledged that.
"Unfortunately, we are not able to fund every request submitted by staff members," Angileri said.
'Where would they go?'
The word "lounge" can bring to mind cushy couches and giant TVs.
Krebs and Harris said they have heard people question why veterans need a lounge in the first place.
Krebs remembers returning to civilian life and making "a new family" when he spent time in the lounge. The veterans are able to talk about shared experiences, he said, and it felt like he was back in the Marines.
Harris recalled when he came in on a Sunday and saw a veteran sitting in the lounge because he was homeless. Without the space, Harris might not have known the student needed help.
"Without this space, where would they go?" Harris asked.
Advocating for veterans can be difficult, Harris said, because they're not used to asking for help. They will "suffer in silence," he said.
He believes that speaking up for the lounge will help ensure its sustainability in the future.
Veterans Day is flooded with thanks and pledges of support.
Harris asks that people put it all into action.
"We must simply go beyond these words and phrases," he said.
(c)2018 The Janesville Gazette (Janesville, Wis.)
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