David Rampil isn’t your traditional college student. He is a seasoned veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He has had direct encounters with the Taliban in Afghanistan. He conducted operations in West Africa following the 2012 coordinated terrorist attacks on the United States’ diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.
Rampil and other student veterans, as well as civilians showing support for the troops, are part of the Veteran Students Organization (VESO), a group dedicated to uniting veteran students with each other and the campus community, and bringing awareness to social issues and difficulties that concern veterans during their college careers and post-service lives.
VESO has on-campus and off-campus trips, fundraisers, graduate student internship opportunities and social events like meditation, outdoor excursions and video-game mixers to help build a stronger sense of community for veteran students at the university.
“The organization is basically a support system for student veterans,” Rampil, president of the club and a senior anthropology major, said. “Seasoned students know tips and tricks around the school that are passed down.”
Club members meet up on Wednesdays in Roth Cafe to swap stories, make jokes, talk about the news and ask for homework help. Many veterans in VESO are slightly older, non-traditional students with families, jobs and responsibilities. The majority of the civilian students who participate in the group join because they have family members that have served or are currently serving in the military.
Eric Cipriani, an active member of the military and senior psychology major, said VESO helped him find his bearings at the university. He moved here from a different state but was willing to take the risk since the school’s reputation spoke for itself.
Cipriani and other veterans benefit from the GI Bill, which covers education costs for active duty service members, selected reserve and national guard armed forces and their families.
“The paperwork that is required to go to school under GI Bill benefits can be intimidating if you don’t know what to do,” Cipriani said. “VESO assisted me with that process when I first got here and it made my life much easier. Everyone in the club is great.”
Marquis Cunningham, a student in a post-baccalaureate health science program and former medic in the army, said his experience in the army helped him realize that he wants to be a doctor instead of an international lawyer.
He condensed what other undergraduates in the pre-med track do in three to four years to just a year and two summers.
Since Cunningham has credits that are over six years old, admissions committees may be reluctant to accept them since the information he learned then is becoming exceedingly outdated. Because of this, he is trying to do as much as he can in a short period of time. In addition, the GI Bill covers only 36 months of tuition, so he wants to take advantage of the opportunity.
“I literally took physics, chemistry, bio and stats last semester,” he said. “This summer I’m taking organic one and two, and two bio labs and biochem. I’ve already sacrificed my soul. I told people don’t call me. Don’t text me. No, I’m not going out. I’m studying.”
Oftentimes, students in the reserves or national guard who are on active duty are sent abroad, forcing them to take time off from school.
“We have one student deploying to Afghanistan this week, but I cannot mention his name for operational security purposes,” Rampil said.
The club shows its support for these students by writing them handwritten letters and sending them care packages filled with snacks and treats.
VESO was recently awarded the Educational Program of the Year at the Stony Brook Student Life Awards for its Tent City homeless veteran program from last semester. It was a collaborative event with the Stony Brook School of Nursing’s Student Nursing Association. On Veterans Day, 60 participants set up tents in Mendelsohn Quad and braved the cold from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. to raise awareness for homeless veterans. A large crowd also stayed to watch the event.
Alex Safran, a senior psychology major, former third generation army paratrooper and retired police officer, said that there are misconceptions about veterans. Safran said he believes the current generation has seen how prolonged war has drained society and how the veteran system hasn’t taken care of its veterans.
“Being a veteran, to me, is a source of pride. I served. I did that and I will back up my vets 110 percent,” Safran said. “We’re normal. We chose to serve. Why do we get blamed for everything that goes on over there? Nobody really understands.”
VESO helps to break down barriers between civilians and military personnel by providing a space for veterans to talk and collaborate with other organizations on campus.
Although Rampil said he gained core values from the military such as honor, courage and commitment, he isn’t the biggest fan of the military institution.
“It’s plagued by toxic individuals and is a political playground for politicians to do social experiments,” Rampil said. “I wouldn’t consider going back into the military unless there was another significant war.”
Cipriani recommends civilians to reach out and talk to their veterans to better understand them and to break stereotypes about veterans, but added veterans often do not stand out.
“One of the things that I did and maybe some other vets do too is that they don’t really brand themselves unless it comes up,” Cunningham said. “Most of the time we just like to blend in, be a student.”
“Veterans don’t join the military to protect other people who joined the military. They enlist so that other people don’t have to do the hard stuff,” Cipriani said. “We are the same as y’all, we just have a few more stories is all. Many people think that vets only care about vets. It couldn’t be further from the truth. I try rather hard to show the world that we care about everyone equally.”