Student veterans find welcome on campus

Student worker and supply chain management senior Cristobal Puga works at his desk at the Military and Veteran Center. Photo by Nadine Omeis | Mercury Staff.

During a deployment to Afghanistan, Eric McCrory said he remembers sitting in a gunner’s hatch driving to Kabul thinking about the commotion surrounding him.

 “For about 98 percent of the time that I was over in Afghanistan, I felt very safe,” McCrory said. “But then there’s also that 1 percent of sheer terror … and I’m thinking — what am I doing right here right now?”

Student veterans such as McCrory find support at UTD through the Military and Veteran Center. During Veterans Day and through the month of November, the MVD offers programming that emphasizes getting to know veterans and understanding the military experience.

McCrory retired from the army as a sergeant first class after 25 years of service. His job specialty was visual communications chief. McCrory attended UTD before transferring to Arizona State’s online program this semester.

During a deployment in Afghanistan, McCrory was a part of a military transition team. McCrory taught Afghani border patrol personnel how to use communications technologies such as radios.

“Literally, we were 35 miles from the border with Pakistan,” McCrory said. “Without that radio and that communication, they were basically sitting ducks for whoever wanted to come along and roll over them.”

McCrory said his time with the military transition team helped him with his communication skills — skills that he brought back to the U.S. and to the classroom.

In addition to deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, McCrory also worked in the White House Communications Agency.

“It’s definitely a high-stress environment. I’ve been deployed to Afghanistan on the border of Pakistan, but there’s just as stressful moments when you have the weight of holding our nation’s leaders’ audio and video up,” McCrory said. “There’s no room for failure. It’s a zero-fail environment.”

McCrory works full-time at the George W. Bush presidential library in Dallas. Because of his position, McCrory said he does not need a bachelor’s degree, but getting one is a goal he has set for himself.

McCrory said he was made to feel welcome during his time at UTD.

“Everyone was super cool to me just like I was a regular student.” McCrory said, “They made me feel totally at home.”

At the MVC, each student veteran is assigned an advisor from Peer Advisors for Veteran Education. McCrory said his peer advisor was always helpful and able to answer questions.

“(She was) just enough to be helpful, but not like ‘Hey, let me have to hold your hand,’” McCrory said. “This person was there to assist me and point me in the right direction.”

Cristobal Puga is a senior majoring in supply chain management. In addition, he is also the outreach coordinator for Student Veterans of America and an advisor for Peer Advisors for Veteran Education. Puga is currently a specialist serving in the Army reserves.

In preparation for Veterans Day, Puga helped set up some of the 850 flags across campus. Each flag represents a student veteran at UTD.

Puga said in 2018, Student Veterans of America changed from a student organization to a departmental organization. Because of the change, Puga said funding now comes through the Military and Veteran Center. Student Veterans of America is still a student-run organization.

“For me and pretty much everyone else, it’s pretty great mainly because we don’t have to deal with the paperwork like other student (organizations) have to,” Puga said.

Lisa Adams, director of the Military and Veteran Center and retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, said she enjoys seeing students achieve their goals.

“That’s one of the things that I like, that not every day is the same,” Adams said. “We have different people coming in with different ideas, different issues, and that makes it very challenging and rewarding at the same time.”

As the outreach coordinator for Student Veterans of America, Puga said he talks to companies who want to work with the orgniazation.

“I tell them what we’re about, what’s our history, why pick us over any other location,” Puga said. “The average GPA in the U.S. is a 3.2, while (for) student vets it’s a 3.4.”

At the MVC dedicated space is provided for studying and socializing. McCrory said he would take a day off from work to study for major exams at the MVC.

“(The MVC) is great. They really take care of you. Ms. Adams and Mr. Short, they were always there,” McCrory said. “That was a super helpful element.”

McCrory was unable to finish his degree at UTD because of conflicts with class schedules and his work schedule, but said he intends to return to UTD for graduate school.

“I felt like a regular student,” McCrory said. “I never felt any different than anyone else that was going to school there.”

Puga said that his favorite part of working with the Student Veterans of America is seeing companies recognize the value of veterans in the workplace.

“Just like how getting diversity in the workplace is great, bringing in a vet into the workplace brings in even more diversity,” he said.

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