Unique program at UWM helping veterans adjust to civilian life

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MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- It can be difficult to leave a career you know for something entirely different. Now, add moving to a city you've never lived in, with no support system in place. It is a challenge many of our veterans face when they leave the service and head to college -- and a group of student veterans is helping to make that transition easier.

Lia Coryell has always had a passion for veterans and the military community. You wouldn't know it by looking at her, but she's a veteran herself, having joined the Army right out of high school. Two years ago, she began a mission at UW-Milwaukee to help veterans transition into college life -- all while being a grad student.

"Part of the college experience is learning about the whole world, and these men and women, these soldiers and marines and sailors, they have that experience, but they don`t always feel comfortable bringing it out in the classroom for fear of being judged," Coryell said.

It wasn't until Coryell met fellow Army veteran Michael Kirchner that those hopes of helping turned into a concrete plan.

"She got a hold of me after one class, after I had done a presentation about transitioning out of the military and she said we need to start something," Kirchner said.

"I knew I had to get the students together to move things forward.  It wasn`t, the staff and faculty or even administration couldn`t do it," Coryell said.

"We need to start an organization. It`s called the Student Veterans of America.  We need this here because it`s important," Kirchner said.

The UWM chapter of SVA was founded. Student veterans across the campus had a place to go, and someone to share their challenges with.

"One of my vets last year told me something that I`ll always remember. He said, `Lia, I was more afraid to walk into that classroom than I was to kick down doors in Fallujah,'" Coryell said.

Rose Torkildson was one of the first veterans to join the new group. As an Army medic, she was deployed twice during her military career. Now, she's back in college to pursue a civilian career as one of more than 1,200 vets at UWM.

"When you get out, you kind of feel a little lost and you don`t have that setup organization for you like you`re used to going to. You`re just trying to make it through going back to life, transitioning out of the military, and enjoying your civilian life again and learning how to be a civilian and going to school at the same time as an adult, which is hard enough for just a regular person," Torkildson said.

Robert Salamon and David Tucek are the current co-presidents of SVA. Of course, veterans themselves, they are continuing Kirchner and Coryell's mission while leading the group down a service-oriented path.

"I didn`t see anything as far as any kind of military or veteran organization. I thought I was like, one of 20 veterans on campus. I didn`t know how many were here at all, and then come to find out how many we did have was kind of shocking," Tucek said.

"Our co-president has legislation in process for veterans getting priority registration. We`ve also pushed legislation for in-state tuition for all vets. We`ve done toy drives for toys for tots, clothing drives for homeless vets in the area, we`ve done flags at the cemetery to symbolize their support and our support of past veterans," Salamon said.

"Slowly but surely we`re getting there, as far as getting a nice network of people set up and having something for the incoming veterans who are coming to school now," Tucek said.

"This is my legacy, the way I see it.  This is the one thing I`ve done in my almost 50 years of life that has really made a difference in peoples` lives and the fact that their lives have changed because I had a skill to get people together to motivate students," Coryell said.

If you're interested in learning more about the SVA, you can check out the newly-opened Military and Veteran Resource Center, or MAVRC, inside the UWM Student Union.

This is a model we may see spread across the country. Coryell says she has been answering phone calls from other universities asking how they're able to get so many veterans involved.