Veterans on UF campus can find support, comrades

Published: Monday, November 18, 2013 at 5:55 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, November 18, 2013 at 5:55 p.m.

When the twin towers collapsed on Sept. 11, 2001, John Goodson knew it was time to carry on the family tradition of military service.

Goodson’s maternal grandfather was the first Army flight surgeon and served in the Vietnam and Korean Wars. His paternal grandfather was drafted and became a military policeman.

“I felt a calling, like there was something I needed to do,” the 29-year-old said. “I got hold of a recruiter and enlisted in the Army.”

He recalled time spent with local people while in Iraq.

“They aren’t all bad people,” Goodson said. “They appreciate what we were doing. Sometimes when we would have off time we would play volleyball with adults.”

After five years of military service, Goodson said he had to cope with having post-traumatic stress disorder while he worked toward a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Gulf Coast State College and Tallahassee Community College.

“A lot of it is remorse (and) survivor’s guilt,” Goodson said. “It makes you really jumpy. It’s hard to be in large crowds. ... In general, a lot of soldiers with PTSD, at nighttime they will sleep next to their weapons because they don’t feel safe. Some days you feel all right. Sometimes you don’t. It’s hard to tell.”

Today, the Panama City Beach native serves as a board member for the Gainesville Chapter, Gator 90, of the Disabled American Veterans. The DAV helps veterans with their claims and find out what benefits and services they are qualified for, said Goodson.

“I think what I’m doing now helps other veterans. … If I can help just one veteran, I will feel like I’ve done my duty,” he said.

Goodson said he plans to continue his education at the University of Florida.

One of the education benefits for veterans provides full tuition and fees directly for all public school in-state students. Approximately 700 veterans are registered at the University of Florida, said Anthony DeSantis, UF’s associate dean of students.

The university has seen an increase of student veterans on campus. The provost and vice president of student affairs have helped ensure there is space available for the UF Collegiate Veterans Success Center, which offers support and a place for veterans to relax, said Goodson.

The center, which opened April 3, gives veterans a place to interact with one another, said Peter Sabo, a commander for the local DAV chapter.

“Just look around,” said 77-year-old, pointing to the spacious room with a kitchen and flat-screen TV. “It’s a place for them to come, study, in between classes with their tests coming up.”

Matthew Davis, president of the UF Collegiate Veterans Society, said the center serves the special needs of veterans.

“A lot of veterans are returning and their needs are different than nontraditional students,’’ he said. “(Veterans) are not joining fraternities and sororities. It gives veterans a chance to meet veterans in nontraditional circumstances so they will have a better transition to the academic setting.”

It’s challenging for veterans to relate to other students because of their age and experiences, said Davis, a 26-year-old finance major.

“A large majority of them may have families like a wife and kids. … Living in the dorms or being able to study late in library west is not typical,” he said. “They may need to wake up early and take kids to school.”

The center provides two study rooms, a kitchen, lounge chairs and Wi-Fi.

DeSantis, who oversaw the construction of the center, said it has become a home for student veterans.

“If you think about any lounges on campus like the Institute of Black Culture or La Casita, you find a place where they can connect,” he said. “That initial communication between student veterans are so important. We have some student veterans in their 50s who come to the center. I don’t know how many students walked in and said, ‘I’m so glad the UF provides this service.’ ”

Students can also register with the Disability Resource Center at UF and seek help, DeSantis added. But not all student veterans necessarily have a medical condition.

Veterans who have post-traumatic stress disorder tend to isolate themselves, said Goodson.

“Your family doesn’t quite understand what you’ve been through, what you saw and how that impacts you,” said Goodson while wearing a gold-rimmed American flag pin.

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