Dressed in their finest, residents from across Washtenaw County gathered in the Michigan Union Ballroom for the sixth annual Student Veterans Benefit Dinner on Friday.
The gala and silent auction was hosted by the University’s chapter of the Student Veterans of America to raise funds for the Washtenaw County Veterans Treatment Court, a program that employs a treatment-based approach — rather than the traditional sentencing — for veterans impacted by substance abuse or mental health.
The annual benefit dinner is held to raise awareness about issues veterans face.
“Correctly identifying those who need help first is often the most life-sustaining step,” said LSA senior and SVA President William Kerkstra in his opening remarks. “There are few causes more worthy than helping veterans meet their psychological and substance abuse needs.”
Student Veterans of Michigan was founded in 2007 by Derek Blumke, then a 26-year-old Air Force veteran, during his first year at the University.
Blumke created the organization because he said he initially felt disconnected from his civilian peers and realized that other student veterans may have felt the same way. He later went on to found the national organization, Student Veterans of America, in 2008.
“When we first got here it was challenging, being isolated and not feeling like you have a sense of connectedness with others,” Blumke said at the dinner. “Albeit we don’t have that experience today because I know that the University is trying to change and better itself.”
Other attendees at the gala agreed that prior to 2007, the University did not have adequate resources to support student veterans.
Ryan Bouchard, a Business graduate student and a veteran who also attended the University for his undergraduate degree, said University officials initially noted that available services were not extensive because of the University’s small population of student veterans.
“Why do you think?” he said. “The University’s services were not up to par with some of their peers.”
Along with SVA, the University now has a Veterans and Military Services Program that helps veterans and other military personnel smoothly transition into the University community.
Judge Christopher Easthope and University Regent Kathy White (D) also spoke at the event.
Easthope, the judge for the 15th District Court in Ann Arbor, under which the Washtenaw County Veterans Treatment Court falls, spoke on the experiences of veterans in the justice system.
“Veterans courts address the real and ongoing cost of war,” Easthope said. “I firmly believe that we owe the men and women of our country the moral obligation to return them as close to whole as possible.”
White, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, discussed diversity in the military as well as in higher education. White said universities must strive for the same kind of diversity that the military possesses.
“They pick people based on merit and the needs of the military at the time,” White said. “This process tends to actually produce a very diverse group of people who end up working together.”
She also mentioned the importance of trust in maintaining diversity, which she said the military instills in soldiers.
“Reconciliation and common understanding cannot be attained in an environment of distrust,” White said. “So, in some ways without trust there’s a perception of injustice no matter what the facts are.”