College Veterans Advocate Is Semper Fi
By: Margie Reese and Albert H. Fulcher Copy Editor and Editor-in-Chief
Published: Monday, December 12th, 2011 at 7:06 pm
A WARRIOR FOR VETERANS — SWC Veterans Services Specialist Jim Jones keeps a steady eye on returning service personnel and the issues that effect them.
Shawn Buckingham’s dreams of being a Marine pilot came to an end, but not by a surface-to-air missile or a dogfight over the sands of Iraq. His mighty dreams were shot down by the smallest but most deadly of man’s enemies.
Working as a U.S. Embassy guard he developed a life-threatening viral infection in New Delhi, India resulting in Type 1 diabetes. His dreams of flying grounded, he left the Marines and joined the private contractor Blackwater. He saw combat as a member of the Personal Protection Team in Baghdad. Buckingham was medically retired in 2007.
A shooting war in Iraq was tough, Buckingham said, but college was overwhelming. He said he quickly became discouraged with the school process, which lacked structure.
“In the military they tell you what to do and where to go,” said the accounting major. “In college I felt like I was on my own.”
Support from other veterans on campus helped turn things around for him, he said, and now he is motivated to help other veterans. Veterans need understanding from the campus community, he said, and education needs to happen on each side.
“What really motivates me are the ones I’ve lost, my friends (killed in action) who became family that I served with in the Marine Corps who don’t have the opportunity to go to school,” he said. “They gave the ultimate sacrifice and I can make sure they are never forgotten. I used to break down when I said this. We fought for the rights of everyone on this campus and everywhere to be outspoken for or against the military, or wars and they should never forget our veterans.”
During his first semester Buckingham was invited to a Student Veteran Organization (SVO) meeting where he met Jim Jones, the organization’s faculty advisor and the college’s Veterans Services specialist. Buckingham became the treasurer and is now SVO president. With the help of Jones and fellow veterans, Buckingham was able to find his way.
“My motivation for joining the SVO was meeting friends who had a shared background,” he said. “I didn’t find too much in common with other students and didn’t have the connection like I did with other vets.”
When Jones first met Buckingham he said he felt an instant brotherhood with the fellow Marine.
“Once they get connected, they start to grow,” said Jones. “It is like adding fertilizer to a flower. They start to grow much quicker and they start feeling like they are a part of the school. That is what I want to do with all of the vets.”
All veterans go through a gauntlet when they integrate back into society, said Jones. Putting the SVO together in 2007 was a necessary move for SWC. It came together quickly.
“All I had to do was find a few interested people with the military background and they instantly formed a chain and a chain of command,” he said.
Jones said he wants veteran students to get involved in community service so they can put on their resume that they did more than sit in class and take a test. He stresses the importance of developing leadership skills.
“The primary purpose of the SVO is to reach out to our veterans that are coming back from war, but it is also a healing process for our students and other veterans,” said Jones. “It is a time to connect student veterans with veterans and to let them know that we do have combat veterans on campus they can relate to.”
Combat veterans often feel isolation, do not like loud noises and are afraid of sitting next to windows, Jones said. SWC needs a place where veterans can sit quietly, meet with a counselor or to study.
“(We need) a place they can go unlike the cafeteria that is crowded and noisy and can be quite intimidating to our combat veterans,” said Jones. “If we could create a place, an environment like that where they can feel at ease, that would be ideal.”
Jones said when student veterans start talking about familiar places there is an instant connection.
“That is what I try to do, to make this campus a little bit warmer for them and to help them realize that they can go to the SVO to find a home,” he said.
It is difficult to tell how many veterans are on our campus, Jones said, though Southwestern College serves more veterans than most Southern California colleges.
“I have watched SDSU grow and have seen what they have done for their vets and the way they reached out,” said Jones. “I believe they have really set the example of how to reach out to veterans. They have an amazing setup over there and a wonderful support system. I would love to see us match that program for our veterans.”
Buckingham said he has great dreams for SWC veterans. He said there is a great need for an outreach program specifically geared to guide veterans through the “mountain of paperwork” and a mentor program to assist new veterans. A Veteran’s Center is his long-term goal.
“This could be in the form of a building or separate room where a veteran could meet other veterans, have a cup of coffee and where volunteer veterans could take a leadership position,” he said. “It would be a great opportunity to introduce the veteran to the SVO.”
Faculty Advisor Chris Hayashi, professor of psychology, said he first thought that would be impossible.
“Back when the talks first started I thought it was a pipe dream,” he said. “And now it is slowly developing into something that is realistic.”
Hayashi said veterans taught him how to conquer big challenges.
“How do you eat an elephant? Bite by bite,” said Hayashi. “What is so impressive about working with Jim and student veterans is how effectively and efficiently students get together, organize, allocate tasks and things get done.”
“I think one of the things they have in common are that veteran students are more focused, have the discipline, the structure and they are self-motivated,” said Jones. “They have proven to be better students, they are going to succeed. They have the stick-to-itiveness. Everyone on campus needs to understand that even though veterans may only be a few years older than traditional students, they have already lived a lifetime. Many of them got to see firsthand the atrocity of war. They may only be a few years apart, but they are miles ahead in lifetime experience. That is the difference. There is a huge gap.”
Hayashi said Jones is an effective leader even though he is not loud and outspoken.
“Jim is more of a compassionate leader,” he said. “He leads by example. He is very straightforward and at the same time he really has a great heart. I think that veteran students gravitate towards him. They have a large degree of respect for him because they recognize how much he really does care about them.”
Jones has worked at SWC for 12 years processing veteran’s benefits. He said he loves to see someone who just got out of the service come to his office with “the deer in a headlight stare” come back a few years later to hand him a ticket to a university graduation. That, he said, is “better than any paycheck.”
“When a student comes up to me and thanks me when they graduate, all I can say is that you did the walk,” said Jones. “I just pointed the direction. Just to see them grow and blossom from the time they first got out of the service when they were thoroughly confused of which direction to take.”
Hayashi said student veterans have had experiences most college students have not.
“That is something that is unique about them,” said Hayashi. “It is a different student population, no matter how you cut it. What is interesting about the student veterans is they bring diversity to the college. Not in terms of just experiences, but in terms of geographic diversity. Most of the veterans are not from San Diego, while most of our other students are from within 20 miles of here.”
Hayashi said there are many impressive female student veterans at SWC, an invisible population.
“That was one of the biggest things that I learned, what female veterans bring to the college and the needs that female veterans have,” said Hayashi. “They are amazing people, amazing students and have amazing experiences that they bring to the classroom and to the college.”
Buckingham said he enjoyed giving back to other vets through the SVO and helping other veterans through regional organizations like the annual Veteran Stand Down. SVO has a close relationship with the Warrior Foundation, serving wounded and rehabilitating veterans from all services.
SVO made a donation to the Warrior Foundation to help amputee Tim Jeffers. He was sent home to Arkansas to visit his family for a week and while he was gone the Warrior Foundation transformed his condominium and made everything adaptive to his needs. Money raised with its Wieners for Warriors fundraiser went to purchase furniture.
“He is a double amputee, he also received head injuries,” said Jones. “They got concrete cutters, electricians and a whole slew of business people together. We witnessed the homecoming and it was very touching.”
Hayashi said the Wieners for Warriors sale is a great example of how the SVO stands out. No other club on campus could sell $850 worth of hot dogs.
“It has nothing to do with the hot dogs,” said Hayashi. “It has to do with the students really promoting a good cause, being very vocal and just being real go-getters. That is what is so impressive and I have learned a lot working with the veterans. Sometimes you just have to be persistent and ask for things, not give up and things get done.”
SVO participates in “Deck the Halls” at Balboa Naval Hospital, decorating three floors for wounded service members.
“I know some of these wounded warriors are here and more are headed in our direction,” said Jones.”
Jones served 15 years in the Marines as a staff sergeant and musician in the ceremonial unit. He performed on the “Tonight Show” and many other shows, public appearances and played for every president of the United States from Gerald Ford to George Bush.
“There are a lot of things I treasure,” said Jones. “Ronald Reagan sent us presidential cufflinks as a gift. Bob Hope sent us a pin when he received a fourth star on the Walk of Fame and he wanted us to perform for that. Just to be inside that little world is so much fun. It was hard work and a lot of commitment and preparation, but it was always rewarding. I loved it.”
Jones is married and has a son in the Marines serving in Afghanistan. He volunteered. His unit is not there. He joined another unit to go.
“I am very proud of him,” said Jones. “There is a Marine side of me that says ‘Yeah!,’ but then there is the father side of me that says ‘be careful.’
As a family man, Jim Jones said he understands that not all veterans with families can do traditional college things, but if they have the time, he likes to see them connect with some of the SVO members and the events. He said it is important that they get to network, meet some of the people outside that support veterans, and make those connections. He said one student met former Assemblywoman Mary Salas and a week later, she represented veterans in the South Bay up at the state capital. Jones said that is what it is all about.
“I am very passionate about our vets,” said Jones. “More so about our student vets. I believe we have all the abilities to take care of each other.