Arielle Levin Becker / CT Mirror
Farmington— When Michael McMinn got out of the Marine Corps after four years and two deployments, he wanted nothing to do with the military. Two friends from his platoon had died from suicide, and the military seemed like too much of a reminder.
“But as I spent more time in the civilian world, I realized that all I wanted to do was be around veterans and be around military,” he said.
He found he had little in common with his old friends, who seemed to view him differently. He struggled at times with anxiety and anger after returning from Afghanistan, but bristled when people wrongly assumed he had post-traumatic stress disorder.
McMinn channeled his focus on his studies at Tunxis Community College, and that’s where he found a bridge between his military and civilian worlds: the Veterans’ OASIS, a lounge for service members on campus.
Each public college in Connecticut has a Veterans’ OASIS. The name is an acronym for Operation Academic Support for Incoming Service Members.
But those who hang out at the Tunxis OASIS and the professor who runs it have made it into a center with a broader mission, an attempt to fill in the concrete gaps and less tangible needs that veterans could otherwise be left to grapple with on their own.
“They just have a lot of different things that they need taken care of, and they can’t get it all in one place,” said Karen DeBari, a Tunxis English professor who runs the OASIS. “So we’re trying to do it at our OASIS anyway.”
That includes help finding jobs or housing or dealing with relationships. It’s meant providing guidance on navigating the seemingly impenetrable VA system, or trying to find assistance faster than the VA provides it. At one point, DeBari and the college’s veterans’ advisor, David Welsh, met with local psychologists to find pro bono help for a student who was struggling.
Sometimes, the function is less concrete. The OASIS is a place veterans say they go to be understood, to talk about things they couldn’t tell civilians.
“The students that go there, they’ll tell you they miss their units when they come back from deployment, and this is like a new unit,” DeBari said. “It’s almost like a family.”
McMinn, 29, is now president of the Tunxis veterans’ club. Sometimes, on days when he doesn’t have class, he drives 25 minutes from his home in Cheshire to study at the OASIS. It’s a comfort zone, a place where he can relax and doesn’t feel alone. Now he strategizes about how to get new student veterans to visit the OASIS.
A place for veterans
There are about 6,000 veterans enrolled in public colleges and universities in Connecticut, said the state’s outgoing Veterans’ Affairs Commissioner Linda Schwartz, who was recently confirmed for a top post at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. But, she noted, they might not recognize each other as veterans without something like an OASIS.
The concept of having a space for veterans on each campus grew out of a 2007 summit between state officials and returning veterans. Schwartz said some described problems they were having on campus. And she recalled the colleges of her era, during the Vietnam War, “when campuses weren’t exactly a friendly place to be.”
Schwartz said she thinks the OASIS programs have helped raise educators’ awareness of veterans’ needs.
“We’ve had instances where in some of our colleges, in the dorm situation, where they’ve put a combat veteran with two tours in Iraq with a 19-year-old freshman. That doesn’t work,” she said.
Many veterans are mature beyond their age. “Sometimes, some of the tediousness of class work is frustrating to them,” Schwartz said.
Perhaps most importantly, she said, they help veterans connect with other veterans. In a couple of cases she knows of, Schwartz said, veterans babysat so another veteran could go to class.
“This neighborly kind of thing,” she said. “It’s taking the camaraderie that they learned and had while they were in the military and bringing it to the college campuses as a form of mutual support.”
Schwartz said other states are considering replicating the concept.
Behind the line
To Nelson Algarin, a 23-year-old Marine Corps veteran from West Hartford who served in combat in Afghanistan, there’s a difference between being in the OASIS and outside.
“That wall is like a line for us,” he said inside the Tunxis OASIS.
Inside, the veterans can speak more freely, talk about memories or tell vivid stories about combat that they wouldn’t share with classmates or professors.
Some of the differences are lighter, like the propensity toward colorful language. On one wall hangs a set of pink headphones, labeled “Karen’s Ear Muffs,” a joking offer to protect the fair ears of the professor (she says she doesn’t need them).
Below it is a poster from one of the OASIS “profanity awareness” months, when people pledged to donate 25 cents per swear word (proceeds went to the Wounded Warrior Project). They cadged visiting dignitaries to curse and contribute to the effort, including the governor, whose picture hangs under a dollar bill on the profanity awareness month chart.
It’s a place for that, and for more serious topics.
Many of the students have lost friends to suicide. Some lost more members of their unit to suicide at home than combat in Afghanistan, DeBari said.
Algarin hopes to attend medical school and become a psychiatrist to help combat veterans.
“We all take this place very seriously,” he said.
‘Whatever the cost’
DeBari has no military experience, although she’s the daughter of veterans. But she teaches writing, and noticed what her students who had served wrote, and how they gravitated toward other veterans in class. Before there was an OASIS, she approached the dean of students about finding a place on campus for returning veterans to spend time together.
Then, the state launched the OASIS centers. The General Federation of Women’s Clubs of Connecticut took them on as projects, providing funding and assistance, and other organizations pitched in. But after two years, the women’s clubs’ project was finished, and DeBari worried the OASIS would atrophy. So she began fundraising. The OASIS is now registered as a nonprofit through the college’s foundation.
Some of the most ardent supporters are veterans who didn’t have anything like it when they returned. She said they tell her to keep it open, whatever the cost.
“One guy said to me, ‘You don’t know how many lives you’re saving by having this place,’” DeBari said. When she demurred, he told her, “You’ll never know, but you just have to keep it going.”
Through the students, DeBari learned about the problems veterans face trying to get services from the VA, particularly mental health care.
Students would report calling the VA but not hearing back. Those who got appointments felt providers were overworked and didn’t offer the care they needed. Too often, it seemed that the first course of treatment would be to prescribe medication, even though talk therapy can be important for post-traumatic stress disorder, DeBari said.
Like a family
Marc Melanson saw the OASIS’ function through his son Matt, who served in Afghanistan as a member of the Massachusetts National Guard and attended Tunxis when he returned.
Matt talked about the other students he knew from the OASIS. He saw DeBari as almost a second mother. And he went out of his way to help the other veterans, like when he learned one was low on money and needed a roommate.
“My son moved out of the house just to help pay his rent,” Marc Melanson recalled.
But like many other returning veterans, Matt Melanson also struggled. He committed suicide in April 2013. He was 22.
His father saw the importance of the OASIS then, too.
“After he passed away, that next day, they all showed up at the house,” Marc Melanson said. “All of them.”
The OASIS veterans didn’t want to bother Melanson’s large family, so they stood outside, until Marc Melanson and two of his brothers insisted they come inside. Then, they talked. Some said they had thought about suicide too.
“It’s just amazing to see these young kids, what they’re going through,” Melanson said. “Twenty-two, 23 years old, they’ve been shot up. One kid’s got a Purple Heart.”
In Matt’s obituary, the Melanson family asked that donations be made to the OASIS, to benefit the student veterans, “especially those suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.”
Matt Melanson still has a presence in the OASIS. There’s a photograph on one wall of him in a canoe with other veterans, including a Marine wearing a life jacket because he couldn’t swim. Melanson was having a ball rocking the boat.
On another wall there’s a T-shirt with a picture of Melanson. The group participates in an annual race in his memory. And the OASIS gives out a scholarship in his name.
Some of the donations in Melanson’s honor went to buy a sign, so people would know the OASIS is there.
“We want veterans to go by and say, ‘OK, this is a veteran-friendly place,’ that people would know that they could come in here and this is a place that accepts and looks out for veterans,” DeBari said.
The sign was what got Tom Shannon into the OASIS.
Shannon, 67, came to Tunxis to take a course on the Vietnam War, curious to see what young people were being taught about what he calls “my war.”
For more than four decades after returning, Shannon didn’t bother trying to discuss it. “I went through a lot of years where I just didn’t want to talk, remember, anything,” he said.
Then, last year, the Army veteran joined the local VFW.
He saw the sign for the Tunxis OASIS while registering for a class. He ventured in and got help signing up. And he’s found commonality with the other veterans, including a World War II veteran and many who weren’t born when Shannon returned from Vietnam.
“If you’ve been there and done that, then when you say something about what you’re feeling or what you felt at the time, you know there’s an understanding,” he said.
Shannon lives in Canton and works as a civil engineer. He has a degree from UConn and audits classes at Tunxis to nurture a longstanding interest in art. He finds that being around younger veterans brings back memories of being their age. And he wants to help others when he can.
He wishes there’d been something like the OASIS when he came home in the 1970s.
“Better late than never, they say,” he said.