• 55°

Veteran Appreciation Events planned for next two weeks

UPDATE: Amtrykes in Action has been rescheduled for April 21 at 4 p.m., due to a rainy forecast for April 22. 

Veterans Day isn’t until November, but members of the LOU community will have plenty of opportunities to show their appreciation for former service members over the next two weeks.

The festivities will kick off this Thursday, with a Veterans Appreciation night at Chick-fil-A on Jackson Avenue. On Sunday, April 22 at 4 p.m., the Department of Health, Exercise Science and Recreation at the university is partnering with National AMBUCS Inc. to present the third-annual Amtrykes in Action race.

Amtrykes in Action is an event that raises funds to provide veterans with amtrykes, which are modified bicycles that provide a means of physical activity to those with disabilities. This year, proceeds from the race will provide five amtrykes for veterans at the Memphis VA home, two for student veterans, and three more for the SVA to use as a whole.

Teams of eight to 10 people will split up the 23-mile amtryke race around the circle while local band Grassfire entertains the crowd.

Even Ciocci, Navy veteran and president of SVA, said he hopes the amtrykes will encourage more student veterans to join the organization and find a place they belong on campus.

“I hope that these amtrykes will go towards helping people with disabilities and making it more accessible for them to exercise, because obviously, mobility issues and disabilities inhibit that part of your life,” Ciocci said. “I feel like it will help with advertising that part of our organization and our commitment to those with service-connected injuries.”

The Ole Miss cycling team is the undefeated champion of the event, but Ciocci said the SVA might give them a run for their money this year.

“Connecting town and gown” is another part of the SVA’s mission for the next two weeks. One of the ways they plan on doing that is through a partnership with My Ole Miss Wish, a charity that works with military families. The organization will host Colton, an 8-year-old boy who has acute lymphoblastic leukemia, on April 27 and 28. Colton’s father returned from deployment two weeks ago, and the SVA is going to celebrate by giving Colton a real military experience.

“Basically, we are going to do a pass-and-review with him and the ROTC, we’re going to have a parade with the fire trucks going, he’s going to throw out the first pitch on Friday, April 27 and we’re going to make him an honorary member of the SVA,” Ciocci said. “This is just our way of giving back to the community and continuing to serve. Just because our service is up doesn’t mean we have to stop, so this is our way of making an impact in Mississippi and different aspects of the community.”

The SVA and Colton will also be teaming up with ROTC members for a nerf gun war, one of Colton’s favorite activities.

On Tuesday, April 24 at 10 a.m., the SVA will unveil its first parking spot as part of the Purple Heart Parking Initiative. Oxford and Lafayette County are both designated as Purple Heart communities, and adding the university further solidifies that status.

The first spot will be awarded to Don Zielenski, an army veteran and student who earned two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star with Valor medal during his time overseas. There will also be a veterans suicide and mental health awareness walk across campus that afternoon.

For those in the community who would like to further support student veterans and their dependents, there are a couple of options. The SVA is currently selling raffle tickets to win a military appreciation football helmet, and as of last week, were approved for a commemorative license plate.

“Last week, we just got approved by congress to start an Ole Miss license plate for the Welcome Home campaign,” Marine Corps veteran Andrew Little said. “It’s just like a specialty tag, so it costs $51, but the SVA organization gets $37 of that. We’re going to use that to fund other events and facilities to better the lives of veterans on the Ole Miss campus.”

The festivities will end on Friday, April 27 with Ole Miss Baseball’s military appreciation game against LSU. Throughout the series, which begins on Thursday, April 26, video clips and promotional footage of the veterans will be shown on the scoreboard at Swayze Field. At the April 27 game, five SVA members will be presented with the new amtrykes at the top of the 8th inning.

Raising awareness for student veterans and amtrykes is something Mary Claire Hamner, with the Marketing and Fan Experience department, said was a priority for Ole Miss Athletics.

“We have a really military-focused community here, I just think they might not know about all the things that are going on,” Hamner said. “To get that in front of people, to get something like amtrykes on people’s minds, will be helpful.”

Finding a way to embody the Rebel spirit and transition from military to student life isn’t easy, Little said. However, getting involved with SVA helped him find a place he belonged, where he, like many others, could form friendships and share in their similar experiences.

This involvement is due in part to the recently hired Assistant Director of Veterans Services, Andrew Newby.

“I started going to school here last year, and there wasn’t really anything going on with the SVA except that I turned in my paperwork to get my GI Bill,” Little said. “But since Andrew Newby showed up, we’ve actually started coming together as a veteran community and changing the way the university views us to where we can still give back to the community even though we’re not active duty anymore. We’re still able to participate and be a good part of this community and be the Rebels.”

Andrew Newby, Assistant Director of Veterans Services, said one of his major goals is to raise awareness of the resources the university provides for student veterans, and improve in areas where services might be lacking.

Through the establishment of the Veterans Resource Center in the basement of Yerby Hall, one major void was filled in comparison to the services provided for veterans at other universities. However, Newby said there is still more to be done in terms of making sure veterans feel welcome and find a community of individuals with whom they can connect. His job, at the moment, is answering one question – What can we do to impact veterans’ lives so they can continue to give back?

“If you’ve ever had to write your blood type on your clothes to go to work in the morning, you shouldn’t have to wonder where you’re going to go on campus to get help. The culture is changing, but we have people who have given up their 20s to defend our values, and now they’re here as students,” Newby said. “I think that, when you look across the SEC at the programs and initiatives that they’re doing for all of the veterans that are attending their universities, and what it is that we are able to offer, there is a large gap that doesn’t need to be there. So, we’re trying to change that.”