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A first-year student veteran is working with UT’s RecSports Outdoor Program to plan outdoor adventures for veterans to help ease their transition from military life to university life.

Derrick Wentling grew up in a military family that moved from coast to coast across the United States throughout his childhood.

He spent most of his high school years in Japan. Before his senior year, Wentling’s family moved to Sevierville, Tennessee where he graduated from Sevier County High School in 2013.

Shortly after graduation, he went directly into the Marine Corps.

After five years of honorable service, Wentling left active military duty earlier this year. This fall, at 23 years old, he enrolled as a freshman at UT.

Post-military life proved to be quite difficult at first. He missed the sense of brotherhood and camaraderie he’d had in the Marines. Wentling began to feel depressed and lonely.

“In the Marine Corps, you don’t have that,” he said. “You’re always surrounded by people. You always have places to be, things to do, and people to talk to and look out for.”

Needing to relieve some stress and gain a boost of motivation to begin his studies at UT, Wentling signed up for Ignite Outdoors.

Ignite Outdoors is one of the four Ignite programs that UT offers to incoming first-year students. The university’s RecSports Outdoor Program staff oversees this four-day wilderness adventure, which allows any first-year students to connect with others while participating in fun outdoor activities like hiking, canoeing, and rock climbing.

The Ignite program has existed for more than 15 years and attracts nearly 1,000 incoming freshmen each year. Throughout the Ignite experience, students learn valuable lessons on leadership, community engagement, and what it means to be a Volunteer.

Derrick helps build a fire during the Ignite Outdoors 2018 program.

When Wentling arrived for Ignite Outdoors, he felt nervous seeing he was the only veteran and considerably older than everyone else. His nerves were quickly calmed, however, as he began to connect with the other first-year students and leaders.

“I was able to mentor, to guide, to engage in conversations about real life, to evaluate and accomplish tasks with camaraderie amongst the group, and, most importantly, feel like I had my identity back,” he said.

Wentling caught the attention of RecSports Outdoor Recreation Coordinator Bradley Beggs, who approached him to gain perspective on his Ignite Outdoors experience as a veteran. Now, he is working with Beggs to establish an outdoor activities program for veterans.

UT is noted as a veteran-friendly university: It is ranked 64th among public schools in the U.S. News and World Report’s Best Colleges for Veterans list, and received a Purple Heart designation in 2014. The university opened its Veterans Resource Center in summer 2017, welcoming student veterans with a place to study, socialize, and meet with coordinators who can help them access services.

Still, veterans services administrators say, there’s always room for more organized events and groups that can help veterans feel a part of the university community. Wentling believes that providing veterans with the opportunity to connect with one another will be beneficial for those who recently left the service.

The outdoor events will run through UT’s Outdoor Program and may include activities such as kayaking, rock climbing, and camping. Although this program is in its preliminary stages, Wentling is optimistic for the future of the veteran experience at UT.

“It’s not like you have to move the heavens and earth to make this happen,” Wentling said. “We’ve got the facilities, we’ve got the equipment, and funding is already there. All you need to do is make a plan.”

The new outdoors program for student veterans is expected to be in place by spring 2019.

For more information or to lend a hand in the efforts, contact Bradley Beggs at bbeggs@utk.edu.

CONTACT:

Katherine Saxon (865-974-8365, ksaxon@utk.edu)