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Student veteran club fosters a community on campus

The upcoming end of the fall term marks the first full semester for RetrieVets, one of the newest clubs at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

RetrieVets is a student organization open to active duty, reserve, guard, retired, veteran and dependent Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard UMBC students. In previous years, there was a club dedicated to veterans, but it dissolved in 2015 after all of its board members graduated. Late last spring, RetrieVets was created by Z Hubenka, a senior psychology student who felt that there was no community on campus for student service members despite their large numbers.

There are at least four hundred veterans on the UMBC campus, a population that rivals the amount of student athletes. However, OCSS is the only department on campus that currently provides resources for UMBC service members. Veteran students struggle with issues that are different from the typical student. Most universities make their campuses comfortable places for veterans by providing amenities like a veteran-exclusive lounge or a veteran resource center. UMBC currently has neither.

“One of the main issues that veterans have is transitioning back into the civilian world. Now couple that with coming back into a university setting where a lot of people are much younger and you have had this entirely different world experience,” said Nick Gaffney, a senior English major. “A student organization can help that translation by bringing veterans together and saying ‘Okay, this is the real world but we can do it together just like we used to do it.’” Gaffney is serving in the U.S. Army Reserve after eight years of active duty for the U.S. Army. He heard about the new RetrieVets organization during an Off-Campus Student Services event last spring and volunteered to be the club’s vice president.

A branch of OCSS is UMBC’s Veteran Services, which assists with VA benefits and also organizes social events in an attempt to strengthen the community of veterans on campus. During the week of Veterans Day in November, OCSS hosted events to help veterans meet each other and offered them free food, care packages and massages. OCSS also hosts Coffee & Conversation events for veterans to discuss their experiences on campus. According to Hubenka, one of the reasons she founded RetrieVets is because of the many discussions that took place at Coffee & Conversation, dinner with President Hrabowski and numerous other OCSS events about the lack of a student organization for service members to meet up.

“OCSS has assisted us in getting off the ground and has been our backing support,” Gaffney said. For RetrieVets’ most recent fundraiser on Nov. 14, the club sold paracord bracelets that they had made the previous meeting. OCSS hosted one of their Veterans’ Day functions on the same day, so they allowed RetrieVets to set up right outside the door to entice people coming in and out of the event.

Despite all the vocal support from both veteran students and OCSS, RetrieVets is struggling with its member participation. To qualify as an active member, you have to attend at least two meetings and two fundraisers during a semester. The club had an email list of about sixty people, but there are only a handful of active members.

“When veterans come here, they come here for a specific purpose: to go to college and get a degree. They are not thinking about how connecting with others and being social can really benefit them,” said Randy Deinlein, a mechanical engineering major graduating this semester. Deinlein served as an avionics technician for the Air Force and is the current president of RetrieVets. “For this group to be strong and continue, we need the support of veterans to step up and to encourage veterans to be more active.”

Deinlein transferred to UMBC from a community college that had a Student Veterans of America chapter and was surprised to find that UMBC had nothing like it. SVA is a nationwide organization that connects collegiate clubs for veterans. Members of SVA chapters can apply for scholarships, attend conferences and are given a platform to network with other veterans. After submitting an application, RetrieVets was approved by SVA as a chapter, validating the new organization even more.

In addition to the success of gaining recognition from SVA this semester, RetrieVets hosted a number of events for their members, such as a Vetsgiving Potluck, where members were invited to bring their family and favorite dishes. Guest speakers are typically invited to their meetings to talk to the veterans about an issue relevant to them. Among this semester’s speakers was UMBC’s new VA certifying official, Tim Rochford, who spoke about the new digital VA benefit certification, and Kieran Queen, who taught the club how to use UMBC’s crowdfunding site, Gritstarter.

Next semester, RetrieVets plans to continue to have guest speakers at their meetings and hopes to expand by including off-campus guests. They also plan to host two events in the style of Reddit’s Ask Me Anything posts. Both students and faculty will be invited to attend and ask RetrieVets any questions they have about military service. The goal is to open up communication between veterans and the rest of the university’s population.

“One of the goals of RetrieVets is to lower the stigma that people might have of veterans because a lot of people have no affiliation and don’t know anything about it,” Gaffney said. “If you know a veteran, don’t be afraid to talk to them.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the veterans eligible to join RetrieVets and also incorrectly referred to RetrieVets as an SVA charter. Additionally, this article has clarified the role OCSS has in assisting veterans on the UMBC campus and Hubenka’s motivations for starting the organization.