Student veterans aim to make Winthrop 'military-friendly' campus

The (Rock Hill) Herald/MCT REGIONAL NEWSSeptember 23, 2012 

— Driving along Interstate 77, Jose Paramo finds himself swerving around debris.

Shreds of rubber tires, plastic waste, beer cans on the shoulder of the road — at night that litter looks like evidence of roadside bombs he encountered serving as a soldier in the Middle East.

When the 36-year-old Winthrop University student came back from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said he wanted to put the Army life behind him.

Paramo's wife is expecting their first child. The baby will be here in November.

Soon, he'll be juggling his time between political science classes at Winthrop and taking care of his wife and child.

He didn't know at first he needed help with the transition, but when he realized it, he found support with Winthrop's student veterans organization. Paramo spotted a student with an assault-mission backpack on campus, and he told Paramo about the group.

These former soldiers, now college students, understand what Paramo's going through.

“It's like being in a state of alert, 24 / 7,” said the group's adviser, Bill Cabaniss, Winthrop's director of health and counseling services.

Cabaniss is an Air Force veteran, following in the footsteps of his dad who was also a military man.

In Afghanistan, Cabaniss served as a physician assistant — a military medic — stitching up and “fixing” injured troops on his own team and with a group of Afghans that Americans are training.

One of the biggest challenges student veterans like Paramo face, Cabaniss said, is coming back home to a country acutely different than a war zone.

Paramo said he sees this stark contrast every day at Winthrop. When people complain about minor college problems, he remembers the time he carried an 8-year-old kid to a doctor after the child lost his leg to a roadside bomb.

“You come back to a culture that doesn't realize what they have,” Cabaniss said. “It's not ignorance, they just haven't seen what's out there. 1 / 8Veterans 3 / 8 have seen combat, they've seen death, they've seen poverty at it's worst. And then they're here in programs with 18-year-olds who have never even had jobs.”

Winthrop's made progress in gaining supportive services for veterans, said the organization's student president Michael Widrich, but there are ways the college could become more attractive for military servicemen and women.

Widrich, 27, said joining the Army at age 18 was the best decision of his life. He spent two years in South Korea and Iraq as a tank gunner and driver. He started the Winthrop group a couple of years ago because he found it difficult to use his military benefits to pay for school at Winthrop.

Since then, the school has hired a coordinator to answer the veterans' financial questions and help them file with Veteran's Affairs for the benefits through the GI Bill. The school's chapter of the student veterans group has evolved from “fixing” their issues at Winthrop, he said, to being a social network of support for returned servicemen and women.

One the group's soldiers was recently deployed to Afghanistan. They raised money for the man and his fiance to enjoy nice dinners and movies in Rock Hill before he left. He'll also receive a care package from the group at Christmas.

“When they leave to take care of us,” Widrich said. “We want to let them know we haven't forgotten about them.”

Widrich's organization also has money in an emergency relief fund in case a student veteran needs financial help with something like buying groceries. They do that to say, “you've done your time, now let us help you,” he said.

Winthrop became a Yellow Ribbon school recently — joining 30 other two-year and four-year colleges in South Carolina that provide more financial support than what students receive through the Post-9 /11 GI Bill. Through Winthrop's Yellow Ribbon Program, up to 20 undergraduate and five graduate students are awarded an additional $6,000 to pay for school.

Cabaniss said Winthrop's next goal should be to gain recognition as a “military-friendly” campus — an honor given to the top 15 percent of schools who give military students the best experience. The University of South Carolina, Charleston Southern University and Newberry College are among those listed as “military-friendly schools” in the state.

This goal could be reached by expanding Winthrop's ROTC program, he said, and adding an EMT or nursing degree program. ROTC students can enroll at Winthrop but have to commute to Charlotte for many of their required classes, and Widrich said it's not that easy to register for those to begin with.

Nursing or emergency medical technician programs would probably attract more veterans, Cabaniss said, because many of them chose medical-type careers in the military but aren't licensed under state laws when they return home.

There's also the added difficulty of Winthrop's “liberal arts setting,” he said, because many people at the college are “anti-war.” With TV coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, though, he said more people in America are seeing soldiers as normal people.

“People today are better at not blaming the people, but blaming the war,” Cabaniss said. “And maybe blaming the administration.”

American soldiers returning home from Vietnam, he said, weren't necessarily afforded that fair treatment. The students helped those older veterans with their computer skills at the Cherry Road American Legion on Sunday.

Cabaniss said the group also has plans to visit hospice patients in Rock Hill. One in four people in hospice is a military veteran, he said, and having a young veteran visit them is a tremendous gift during their last few days.

“What they're finding out is it's nice to have veteran volunteers,” he said. “These are their last days…and they're opening up. They've got a nice memory as they go.”

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