Ask nearly anyone associated with Clemson University, and they’ll tell you Military Appreciation Week is one of their favorite times of the year. The events that unfolded last week were certainly no exception.
Paying tribute to the school’s well-documented heritage as a military institution, events were held throughout the week to honor those who have served, are currently serving or have paid the ultimate sacrifice in support of this country. One such event received considerably less fanfare than, say, the placing of flags at the Scroll of Honor Memorial, or during the Tigers’ football game against Duke on Saturday night.
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But it was special nonetheless.
Brennan Beck, assistant director for military and veteran engagement, was the featured speaker at “Conversations over Coffee,” a bimonthly program held in Hendrix Student Center for Student Affairs professionals. He joined Vice President for Student Affairs Almeda Jacks and spoke extensively about his time in the U.S. Army and how he uses those experiences to assist Clemson’s student veteran population in his current role.
Beck grew up the son of a “strict disciplinarian” and felt a call to serve from a young age. His father was a reservist with both the National Guard and Air Force. One of his earliest recollections of the lifelong call to serve came in fifth grade, when he was asked by his teacher to draw what he wanted to be when he was older. What resulted was an elaborate battle scene of tanks, helicopters and the blood of soldiers, represented by red crayons.
“My teacher was … disturbed,” Beck said, as the room full of Student Affairs colleagues burst into a good laugh.
A few years later, when terrorists flew hijacked planes into the towers of the World Trade Center in New York City on 9/11, Beck remembers watching television coverage and knowing how the tragic events would impact the country. Enlisting was never a question.
Just five days removed from high school, Beck got his first introduction to life in the South when he started basic training in Fort Benning, Georgia. At 18, he received orders he was shipping out to Germany. He was all set to go to Iraq for a deployment when his appendix burst, leaving him behind the rest of his unit, including a fellow soldier named Ross McGinnis.
When Beck finally got to reunite with his best friend months later, McGinnis would not long after be killed in a firefight after falling on a grenade. He was posthumously awarded a Medal of Honor, the highest decoration awarded in the military. Three months later, his friend Alberto Garcia Jr. lost his life.
Beck shared with the group on Nov. 15 the difficulty these losses played in his life.
“I started to internalize the guilt of losing friends,” he said. “The military didn’t encourage us to get help, either. When we lost a guy, we took the rest of the day off and the next day you’re expected to be on patrol carrying out the mission.
“It wasn’t a healthy long-term strategy for coping with things.”
Beck’s unit lost 14 men over the span of a year before returning to Germany. Some of his friends turned to drugs. Beck himself began to self-medicate with alcohol. Despite these internal struggles, he was promoted to sergeant and went back to Iraq in 2008. His unit never fired a single shot in combat over the course of that deployment.
He was back in California following the second tour of duty and honorably discharged after being diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in 2010. Beck was awarded a Bronze Star with Valor and a Purple Heart.
But he wasn’t feeling the type of support he needed.
“I went back to school and tried to take advantage of my post-9/11 GI Bill at a local college,” he explained. “But we didn’t have a resource center or student organization. Even though I had a goal of getting my degree, I had a lot of trouble transitioning in. I remember crying and thinking, ‘This is the new normal’ — what a defeated approach and broken mentality. But I had people, including my wife Ashley, who didn’t give up on me.”
He got connected to a local veterans writing group, which allowed him to eventually open up about the traumatic events he had seen in combat. It helped him eventually wean off of alcohol and medication. The healing process began.
After earning a degree in English, the Becks moved on a whim to Ashley’s hometown of Liberty, South Carolina. He still had difficulty adjusting to civilian life. Employment was hard to come by and he was spending a lot of time doing nothing.
One day, he came across a job advertisement for a program coordinator within the English department at Clemson — a school he knew little about. He ended up earning the position and soon after contacted Sam Wigley, president of the Student Veterans Association.
“I told him I was in the English department and I wanted to help out with a veterans writing group,” Beck recalled. “He said he would support someone starting it. I was reluctant at first, but I remember thinking if we helped just one person, it would be time well spent.”
Clemson World wrote an extensive piece on the writing group Beck established in 2015. A year later, the Office of Student Transitions and Family Programs was in search of a full-time staff member to work with student veterans and military-connected students.
Beck was a natural fit and was hired to follow the groundwork put in place by Rebecca Atkinson, who worked to help spearhead programming such as veteran-specific Orientation sessions, graduation receptions and green zone training for staff. Those practices are still followed today. In fact, Beck hosted a green zone training last week.
“I am extremely grateful for the work done prior to me by Becca and others in Student Affairs,” Beck acknowledged during his 40-minute presentation. “It set the foundation for the program we have now.”
One thing that was missing, though, was a larger gathering space for student veterans. The group had a small space in Tillman Hall, but it had long since exceeded capacity.
Beck envisioned a central hub on campus where veterans could go for resources, support and a sense of community. He desired the type of things he lacked from his own college experience shortly after his discharge from the Army.
“We started advocating for space,” he said. “I recognized it was a challenge. But I cannot stress how important it was to get a center on campus. A lot of our students see it as a symbol of support for veterans.”
The space Beck spoke of came to fruition in Vickery Hall following renovations to the area formerly occupied by Athletic Academic Services. He relocated his office to the new center, which saw more than 100 guests attend a special ribbon-cutting ceremony on Nov. 16.
“The program has grown so much in the last two years, and it’s just amazing to be a part of that.”
And it was amazing for colleagues to hear Beck share the vivid and sometimes painful details of his time in the military and understand how it has been a significant influencer with the work he does each and every day supporting the more than 300 verified student veterans at Clemson.
It was without a doubt one of the highlights of Military Appreciation Week 2018.
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