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Daniel Sassone spent 13 years in the US Army before coming to UT to pursue a degree in communications studies. He ended his military career after enduring a tragic year of loss—his wife, child, and father all died within a year of each other.

He’s older than most of his classmates. His life experiences are vastly different. He’s been places, seen things, and endured things that only another military veteran can understand.

That’s why he visits the Veterans Resource Center in Hodges Library almost every day.

“We are bound by our shared and common experiences, a bond we don’t share with the other students,” Sassone said. “Whether it has to do with post-traumatic stress disorder, mental resilience, or our affinity for toughing things out, we need a space where we can be ourselves, without fear of censure or judgment.

“The resources provided by the VRC make it so much more likely we’ll be successful at UT.”

The Veterans Resource Center, which opened on the first floor of Hodges Library two years ago, has become a haven for student veterans. It’s a lunchroom, a study hall, a social hangout, and an information clearinghouse staffed with people who can answer questions. It’s a calm and cheerful home base in the midst of a busy campus that can sometimes feel overwhelming.

Marine Travis Bryan visits with a habit dog at the Veteran Center inside John C. Hodges Library on November 05, 2019. Photo by Steven Bridges/University of Tennessee

“It’s exactly what we envisioned years ago, and we look forward to seeing it evolve to meet the needs of our student veterans in even more ways,” said Jayetta Rogers, VRC director.

While the center’s welcoming orange-and-white suite of offices and lounges is still new, the idea for such a place began taking shape years ago.

UT’s Task Force in Support of Student Veterans was established in the fall of 2011 in what’s now the Center for Health Education and Wellness. In 2014, the task force became the Veterans Resource Team and was moved under Enrollment Management. Its reporting line in time will transfer to the new vice provost for student success.

The idea for the center came from the task force, and planning started in 2016. During the 2016–17 academic year, temporary space for student veterans opened in Dunford Hall while the center was constructed in Hodges Library.

“Just like these facilities, our support of student veterans has grown at UT, and the university is now a recognized leader in this area,” Rogers said.

UT is consistently listed among U.S. News and World Report’s Best Colleges for Veterans. In 2016 UT received the VETS Campus designation from the state, and in 2014 it became the first school in the state of Tennessee and one of the first six nationwide to receive the Purple Heart designation from the Military Order of the Purple Heart.

Marine Joshua Crum pets a habit dog while working at the Veteran Center inside John C. Hodges Library on November 05, 2019. Photo by Steven Bridges/University of Tennessee

This fall 962 UT students are attending UT on educational benefits from the military. Of those, 435 are student veterans and 527 are dependents.

Rogers said nearly 10 percent of the student veterans visit the center each day to study and socialize. A card swipe device helps track usage.

The center has three regular full-time staff members, an additional staff member funded by a grant through the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, and six student workers, all veterans or dependents of veterans.

The center also has its own comfort dog—Shiloh, a “mutt-a-doodle” owned by Karen Armsey, a staff member in the College of Veterinary Medicine. Shiloh visits every Tuesday around lunchtime.

Campus and community members have been great to provide support. A Girl Scout troop once dropped off 90 boxes of cookies. A local Daughters of the American Revolution chapter delivers coffee, oatmeal, beef jerky, and other snacks each month.

For many student veterans, the center is kind of a home away from home.

“I stop by the center almost daily—pretty much anytime I’m in Hodges Library and it’s open, I make sure to poke my head in, socialize, and spend a little time with whoever is there,” Sassone said.

He said the center is a place where he can “be my authentic self.”

The personal tragedies he experienced in addition to his military service have taken a toll, and he’s still recovering.

“Many veterans feel extremely isolated socially. I do,” he said. The center has helped him feel connected to the student body and has allowed him to develop a supportive network of friends who are also student veterans.

Kristopher Reynolds, a former Marine, is a junior studying biochemistry and cellular and molecular biology and math. He is president of UT’s veterans honor society, SALUTE.

He visits the center as often as his busy schedule allows.

“I go for the atmosphere—to be in an environment with people of shared experiences and attitudes with whom I can relate and express opinions more freely,” Reynolds said. “The Veterans Resource Center is just a great environment, kind of a place to ourselves, where we feel more at home.”

Travis Bryan, a senior in a business, loves having the center in Hodges Library.

Bryan recently had a leg amputated as the result of an injury he sustained while in the military, and he uses a motorized wheelchair to get around.

“It’s been nice to have a place right across from Haslam College of Business. I zip right over there,” he said.

He goes to the center to eat, to study, and to relax.

“I just like that there’s a place for us,” he said. “There’s always going to be somebody there who can find an answer . . . or who has been through a similar patch. If I ask somebody in there for help, they’re going to help me. We all talk the same language.”

Robert Behan pets a habitat dog.
Robert Behan, with the US Air National Guard, pets a habit dog while working at the Veteran Center inside John C. Hodges Library on November 05, 2019. Photo by Steven Bridges/University of Tennessee