Mission: Strong Reentry
Clark pledges to remove the barricades between veteran and civilian life
By Rhonda Morin
Touching down onto American soil was a relief, having spent the last 12 months in the tangled and soaked jungles of Vietnam humping 110 pounds of radio equipment, ammunition and supplies in a tattered rucksack. Paul Ruggerio entered the 173rd Army Airborne Brigade in 1968 at the age of 18 and was deployed to Vietnam in January 1970, where the corporal remained for a long, punishing year.
He took a deep breath to try to settle his nervous stomach. As he exited the aircraft at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and walked down the tarmac, a throng of demonstrators pressed against a nearby fence lobbing raw eggs and rotten tomatoes at the returning soldiers, yelling obscenities.
Welcome home soldier.
That moment is burned permanently into Ruggerio’s memory because it set the course for his perception of how he was treated in public for the next four decades. Veterans from Ruggerio’s era who returned from the Vietnam conflict were told to bury their trauma deep and not talk about their experiences or seek mental health help. The result was a generation of men, women and their families left angry, confused and depressed.
Ruggerio struggled to find his way, working first as an emergency medical technician until he got a bachelor’s degree in health care administration and social work. His anger flared often, nightmares were a common occurrence in the decade following his return from war. In 1996, he enrolled at Clark College and graduated with a certificate in supervisory management two years later. He landed a job with the state of Washington as a disability social worker, a post he held until he retired in 2011. His bouts with anger came to a head toward the end of his career, according to his wife, Eyme, who is a student at Clark College.
“The last few years of working, the outbursts were more frequent. It would take almost nothing to set him off. So he decided to retire,” she said.
His retirement coincided with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and an official recognition of the condition from the United States Department of Veterans Affairs—40 years after returning from the war.
Being in a crowd sets off his anger, noise is irritating and he lasts about two hours in public before he begins to have anxiety attacks, said Eyme. So she decided to have their Siberian Huskie, Nanook, trained as a service dog to help Ruggerio control the outbursts.
When Ruggerio’s stress begins to flare, “Nanook leans against me and if I don’t pay attention to her, she will make me sidestep or nearly knocks me over,” he said. “All I have to do is begin to pet her, scratch her under her chin and I relax.”
The dog was trained by Battle Ground-based Northwest Battle Buddies, a nonprofit that assists veterans with PTSD to regain their independence with the aid of professionally trained dogs.
A service dog is one in a variety of helpful resources veterans have in Southwest Washington. For veterans at Clark College, the smaller class sizes and personal attention they receive from faculty and staff has been cited as comforting and rewarding.
Of Clark County’s more than 35,000 veterans, nearly 700 are enrolled at Clark College. As Clark raises funds for its Veterans Resource Center, “we are particularly interested in earmarking funds for services and equipment that veterans tell us they need,” said Lisa Gibert, president and CEO of Clark College Foundation.
Some of those needs include targeted academic advising to help veterans complete their degrees and/or transfer to four-year colleges, information on careers and a physical space in Clark’s Penguin Union Building.
Jesse Bosdell is a first-year student at Clark studying engineering. An Army Special Forces veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, the 28-year-old chose Clark because he was told the college is a great primer to higher education.
“You learn about your limitations in the military,” said Bosdell. “I didn’t know if I was college material. I didn’t need to be told what to do, I just needed some direction.”
He has begun to find his way at Clark with the help of other student veterans and nonveterans. Recently, he had an engineering paper assigned that required a cover sheet in what the professor listed as “standard form.”
“I didn’t know what that was,” Bosdell said, noting that the military uses a different language for tasks than civilian society. “It’s like learning everything all over again.”
Fortunately, other veteran classmates took him aside and explained the process to Bosdell. “I learn the best when the big words are stripped away and we break it down into the fundamentals.”
Today, Bosdell’s life plays out in the classrooms of Clark College where he is majoring in biomedical engineering with the goal of someday completing his doctorate in the nano-electronic field.
Community Giving Expands Veterans’ Fund
Financial support from the community is what makes services for our veterans possible. Plans are underway to renovate an existing space in the Penguin Union Building for a center that will help veterans reintegrate into civilian society and college life, while preparing them to be workforce ready.
Jane Hagelstein’s grandfather was a veteran of both World Wars and between the conflicts he served in the National Guard. Hagelstein donates to Clark in memory of her grandfather, but also because she believes the college provides an exceptional foundation for students.
Her most recent gift of $48,000 is directed toward the new Veterans Resource Center and is a testament to Clark’s emphasis on student learning.
“Students get a solid technical education at Clark that allows them to move right into the workforce and into a good paying job,” she said.
Furthermore, a $30,000 grant from the Community Foundation for Southwest Washington was announced in November for Clark’s Veterans Resource Center. The grant is in celebration of the Community Foundation’s 30th anniversary.
Other individuals have donated generously toward the fund because of their belief in serving the diverse needs of veterans. The philanthropic support ensures that more veterans will receive counseling or mentoring during their higher education training—integral elements for a lifetime of success.