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No veteran left behind

FGCU helps veterans transition to civilian life through the Warrior Health and Fitness Program and the Veterans Florida Entrepreneurship Program.

In an effort to help veterans successfully transition to civilian life, FGCU now offers the Warrior Health and Fitness Program and the Veterans Florida Entrepreneurial Program.

I am an American Soldier.
I am a Warrior and a member of a team.
I serve the people of the United States, and live the Army Values.
I will always place the mission first.
I will never accept defeat.
I will never quit.
I will never leave a fallen comrade.
I am disciplined, physically and mentally tough, trained and proficient in my Warrior tasks and drills.
I always maintain my arms, my equipment and myself.
I am an expert and I am a professional.
I stand ready to deploy, engage, and destroy the enemies of the United States of America, in close combat.
I am a guardian of freedom and the American way of life.
I am an American Soldier.

— The Soldier’s Creed

There might not be a line on a school, job or loan application where The Soldier’s Creed fits as a reply to the question, “What makes you qualified?” But if you had to count on someone to succeed as a university student, employee or small-business owner, the person who lives by those words likely would be someone you’d want on your team.

U.S. military personnel have been instilled with the resolve and discipline it takes to be successful everywhere – in the classroom, in business, in life. Some simply need the education, training and financial backing to confidently transition back to civilian life.

That’s where Florida Gulf Coast University answers the call of duty.

From help with navigating education benefits and providing dedicated space in the Library, to conducting annual tributes and offering business-training and health-and-fitness programs, the University sends a clear message to all willing and able veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces:

FGCU wants you.

And it goes beyond that. To the approximately 120 veterans currently enrolled, FGCU needs you.

“It is the responsibility of great universities to bring together those who have lived part of our past history to educate the next generations and to learn from them as well,” FGCU President Wilson G. Bradshaw said at the 14th annual Veterans’ Voices Symposium last February. “I hope that today’s experience brings a new dimension to Bradley Clark’s original idea – that our veterans have much to teach us.”

Bradshaw was referring to the late Bradley K. Clark, a Naples investment manager and FGCU Foundation board member who, before his 2009 death, started the Veterans Voices Symposium, “Courage in the First Person,” to bring veterans together to talk about their experiences.

That’s a concept that Chris Wright-Isak, FGCU assistant professor of marketing and a strong advocate for veterans, practices daily. The daughter of a World War II veteran, sister of brothers who did tours with the Navy and Air Force and mother of a Navy man, she has dedicated much of her life to serving the military in her own way.

As part of her research, she spends Tuesdays at the Southwest Florida Military Museum & Library in Cape Coral, talking with veterans to find out what they’re thinking and feeling. And as president of FGCU CampusVets, an umbrella organization for faculty and staff who served, and faculty adviser to the registered student organization Students Who Served, she interacts daily with former military personnel who have transitioned to civilian life using FGCU’s resources to help in their new mission: a return to normalcy and march toward prosperity.

Wright-Isak believes the major benchmark in FGCU’s growing relationship with veterans was the 2014 establishment of the Cortese-St. Angelo Veterans Room on campus – Room 333 in the FGCU Library. Brought to fruition after a concerted effort by Wright-Isak and Provost Ron Toll to find a dedicated space, made possible through a donation by a family with deep military roots and off limits to those who didn’t serve, the private room is a quiet oasis where veterans can study, rest, grab some food and drink or just shoot the bull.

“It’s a bridge between the university and the veterans’ community,” Wright-Isak said. “And we need to build every bridge we can.”

No Veteran Left BehindAnother such “bridge” is the Veterans Pavilion on the Library Lawn, an almost quarter-million-dollar project paid for by FGCU Student Government that, as Bradshaw said at its 2013 dedication, is a “memorial that shows our gratitude to these brave men and women who have served, making sacrifices most of us cannot imagine as they defended our nation and freedoms.”

Other “bridges” FGCU builds for veterans manifest themselves in higher-education and career opportunities, and talent and expertise lent through formal, university-implemented programs – all designed to help those who fought be all they can be in the next stage of their lives.

The two most prominent of these address the health of veterans physically, mentally and financially: the Southwest Florida Warrior Health & Fitness Program, which has operated on campus since 2014; and the new Veterans Florida Entrepreneurship Program.

Taking care of veterans’ business

FGCU was one of five Florida higher-learning institutions – along with the University of West Florida, the University of North Florida, Florida Atlantic University and Hillsborough Community College – chosen this year to pilot the Veterans Florida Entrepreneurial Program, a multifaceted business boot camp. Its aim is to do for veterans’ business acumen what the Warrior Health & Fitness Program does for their health.

Mitch Cordova, dean of the College of Health Professions and Social Work, says it’s “our duty and honor to help post-9/11 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans living in Southwest Florida.”

Cordova’s college is where the Warrior Health and Fitness Program operates in the exercise and fitness lab in Marieb Hall. But it’s a few miles northeast of campus – at the new Emergent Technologies Institute – where veterans hoping to transition into the business world received training, mentoring and the chance to pitch their capitalistic dreams to potential investors. It was all thanks to the new Veterans Florida Entrepreneurship Program funded by a $1 million grant from the Florida Legislature, organized by Veterans Florida and implemented during the first half of 2016 at the five campuses. The program includes six months of follow-up mentoring as the veterans learn the ropes of the business world.

For someone planning to start a small business, it helps to have weapons in one’s arsenal such as proficiency in leadership, accountability, experience working with teams and the ability to handle stress. That’s why Sandra Kauanui, director of FGCU’s Institute for Entrepreneurship, sees military veterans as ideal candidates for business start-up training. And FGCU was the ideal place to be a host site, with a proven record of entrepreneurial development through the institute Kauanui directs along with support from the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) at FGCU and other sources, notably FGCU’s U.A. Whitaker College of Engineering and a network of area business mentors ready and willing to serve.

“It’s a great opportunity for veterans to do something they really want to do that’s meaningful,” said Kauanui, who helped create the statewide curriculum for the nonprofit program. “A lot of them come from leadership roles in the military. They’re used to working with structure and follow-through. And now, maybe they don’t want to work for somebody else.”

Amy Ridgway, a 2015 business management graduate with a concentration in entrepreneurship, coordinated the FGCU program while working on her MBA. She joined business Assistant Professor Eric Arseneau, Kauanui, engineering Assistant Professor Joseph Cuiffi and Annie Stout, adjunct instructor of entrepreneurship, as staff mentors. “The joint collaboration between the business and engineering colleges has been great,” Ridgway said.

A portion of the program takes place on campus and is spread over the 14-week program so as not to interfere with participants’ jobs or schooling. Veterans got face-time instruction from experts as they refined their business plans and prepared their pitches for judges and potential investors, with two of the business proposals earning a total of $15,000 in grant money to get their concepts off the ground.

The final phase involved ongoing mentorship and follow-up support from SBDC consultants to help the new businesses get up and running successfully.

The program is open to anyone who is either active duty or a veteran who was honorably discharged, and lives in Florida. The goal is to attract as many as 400 veterans statewide.

The state is a perfect setting for this program. Florida has 1.5 million residents who are veterans – third-most of any state – and there are 20 military installations around the peninsula. From a business perspective, Florida is a leader in high-growth sectors such as aerospace, manufacturing, logistics, research and development and technology, producing more than 750,000 defense-related jobs alone.

The Sunshine State also is ideal for recreation, given its beautiful – albeit hot and humid – weather. That’s why Keith Basik, a Naples veteran who served in Iraq as an executive officer with the Army Rangers and has put in 15 years as a reservist, was in the entrepreneurship program learning how to market his invention: the FlipTowel, a wristband he plans to retail for $15.95 that easily unfolds into a towel and can be used for a wipe on the go – such as when jogging, bicycling or playing tennis.

He was among 31 veterans who made it to the final weekend of the formal program in June. They were spread out over three rooms at the ETI, all sharpening their business pitches in hopes of making the cut for the Frank Stern Compassionate Shark Tank and a shot at real business start-up cash.

Basik huddled with his brother Brian, an Air Force veteran who was marketing his product – a waterproofing agent for concrete surfaces – along with Jerry Wallace, a self-described “serial entrepreneur” from Naples who was taking a break from his doctoral work at Valdosta State University in Georgia to lend his expertise as one of 21 mentors; and mentor Dixibeth “Dixie” Villarraga of Naples, who graduated from FGCU in May with a degree in special education and a minor in entrepreneurship. Villarraga was part of a team of business and engineering majors that developed a new sanitizing system for hospitals that competed against teams from other universities and colleges in the Florida Venture Forum competition last spring.

As a recent student, Villarraga had Keith Basik’s attention. “I can learn things from students about marketing that I don’t really know much about, like using social media,” he said. “You have to create excitement out there, and I think students can do a better job than I can.”

Villarraga was getting some life lessons from the Basik brothers and the other veterans she was helping as well. “This is a great environment … these guys are showing me a lot,” she said. “While the veterans can learn from students who have a different perspective, I can learn from their experience.”

Keith Basik’s impressive, PowerPoint-enhanced presentation selling his FlipTowel was good enough to make the cut to eight finalists who came back the next day to face the Shark Tank. The friendly competition is named for Frank Stern, a World War II Air Force pilot who retired as a major to Southwest Florida and, as a self-made millionaire in real estate development, endowed his life savings of more than $4 million to a donor-advised fund at the Southwest Florida Community Foundation when he died at 95 in 2014.

Basik didn’t sway the judging panel of local investors and business leaders – Marine vet Stephen Berge of Cape Coral earned the top prize of $10,000 for his concept of a construction-supply sourcing company, while Cindy Latsko of Naples got $5,000 for her idea to better educate chronically ill patients about managing their health – but he’s still working with five FGCU student mentors and crowd-funding source Kickstarter to get the FlipTowel to market.

While Basik is going the Kickstarter route for funding, other inaugural program graduates who qualify are getting start-up seed money for their business plans from yet another veteran-inspired gift from retired Health Management Associates chief executive and Naples resident William “Bill” Schoen, a Marine veteran who served in Korea. Kauanui said when she asked Schoen for help with the program – after he had just donated in November 2015 an additional $250,000 for The Schoen Foundation Veterans Scholarship Endowed Fund – he immediately kicked in $100,000 to help fellow veterans realize their business dreams.

Basik, meanwhile, likely wasn’t alone when he said he got more than he expected from the program. “I thought this was going to be a lecture on how veterans can get grants,” he said. “Then I got in here and said, ‘Wow … this is a real program, a real class.’ I’m immensely impressed.”

That kind of response made it little surprise when legislative funding for the program recently was renewed. The 2017 version will be slightly different – Kauanui said the on-campus portion of training will be every other weekend instead of in a cluster of weekends at the end, two more schools will be selected from a pool of applicants to join the five existing sites and Veterans Florida will manage the program instead of a designated host school

Joe Marino, chief operating officer at Veterans Florida, said “we were blown away by the interest. Initially, we were hoping to get 400 veterans (80 at each of the five sites), but we ended up with more than 600 applicants, and the network partners had to scale it down. Veterans have an entrepreneurial spirit. They have a million and one ideas how to do things better, and now they have the tools to bring them into the civilian world.”

Training for civilian life

While the entrepreneurial program aims to give veterans the knowledge and networking they need to transition military skills to the business sector, the  FGCU Warrior Health and Fitness Program aims to help them transition from the rigors – often horrors – of post-9/11 combat deployment to a healthy, happy civilian life.

FGCU alum Armando Hernandez is a veteran who has been there and back, both figuratively and literally. As a Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq from 2003 through 2007, he knows the anguish, frustration and instability those who serve in military combat often struggle with when they return stateside – the “invisible wounds,” as Hernandez calls the condition.

“I really felt the effects of deployment, had transition issues,” he said. “Anxiety, hyper-vigilance, I gained a lot of weight – I was probably 60 pounds overweight – couldn’t sleep. That was the big issue, I couldn’t sleep.”

Hernandez would be one of the lucky warriors – he found his own way back to normalcy, unlike many of his peers left with the permanent scars of physical disability or the emotional scars of post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression.

“Exercise got me out of it,” he said. “I started exercising one day, stuck with it and started seeing results. Then I turned on to the nutritional concept and started eating well, and I noticed everything in my life took a turn for the better.”

Ready to move ahead thanks to the stability his fitness-and-nutrition regimen had restored, Hernandez intended to work toward a business degree at FGCU after earning an associate degree at the former Edison State College (now Florida SouthWestern State) when he had an epiphany.

“I was actually sitting there in the process of getting enrolled and I’m thinking, ‘You know you don’t want a business degree. Exercise is where your passion is, where your heart is.’

“I literally stood up right then and said, ‘I don’t want to be an accounting major.’”

That’s when Hernandez made what he called one of the best decisions of his life and found his way to Marieb Hall and the College of Health Professions and Social Work.

While working toward his degree in exercise science, Hernandez did a strength-and-conditioning internship with the Boston Red Sox during his final semester in March 2014, while the major league club was in Fort Myers for spring training.

One day, Mike Roose, a strength and conditioning coordinator in the Red Sox organization who was Hernandez’s internship supervisor and a veteran who served in Afghanistan, invited his intern to a meeting. In attendance were Red Sox medical director Dr. Larry Ronan of Massachusetts General Hospital and retired U.S. Army Gen. Fred Franks, a Naples resident who in the early 1990s was the VII Corps commander in the Gulf War and led the so-called “Left Hook” maneuver that forced the retreat of 14 Iraqi divisions – considered a remarkable feat in modern warfare.

The meeting was about expanding Home Base, a Red Sox Foundation and Mass General program started in 2009 that helps post-9/11 veterans, service members and their families through clinical care, wellness programs, education and research. It was from that meeting that Home Base would develop a satellite program in Southwest Florida focusing on veterans’ wellness, and also recruit the first coordinator of the new Warrior Health and Fitness program – Hernandez.

“Everything came together for me right then … it happened so quickly I can’t even describe it,” he said.

The first order of business was to find a home for the new Southwest Florida Warrior Health and Fitness Program, “and the obvious answer was FGCU,” Hernandez said. “FGCU’s connection to the community is huge, and I knew it would be a win-win for both of us.”

Hernandez reached out to Assistant Professor Dennis Hunt, founding exercise-science program director, about using the facilities in Marieb. Hunt embraced the idea and took it to Associate Professor Eric Shamus, Department of Rehabilitation chair; and the college’s dean, Cordova. By June 2014, the Warrior program was up and running.

“Anytime anyone from FGCU heard about the program, all they said was, ‘Let’s make this happen and what can we do?’ ” Hernandez said.

It is in that exercise-science lab in Marieb where Hernandez and Jaime Fernandez, (’13, Human Performance), a post-9/11 Marine Corps vet who also interned with the Red Sox, help up to 60 local veterans annually with the assistance of two FGCU exercise-science interns. Besides carefully designed workouts, the veterans get instruction in nutrition, yoga, meditation, health education, relaxation techniques and even free golf lessons. They also get a six-month follow up, free fitness-facility access in Collier County and connections with other services and resources for veterans.

One of the veterans working out at Marieb one afternoon was Monique Hashimoto, an FGCU business management major who, like Hernandez, enrolled in college after serving a military tour, hers in the Air Force.

“I’m really glad to be part of this,” Hashimoto said between exercise sets. “I had two kids and gained some weight, and I’m trying to get back in shape. This has helped me a lot.”

Hernandez’s work with veterans was recognized by the FGCU Alumni Association, which earlier this year inducted him into the Soaring Eagle Society, an honor awarded to recent FGCU graduates who make a difference. And he loves his job: a perfect confluence of the exercise science he used as his personal medicine and studied as a profession, and his desire to reach out and help others who also have marched in his shoes.

It’s almost a civilian extension of the mantra Hernandez, Fernandez and their fellow Marines bought into and served in the spirit of teamwork, loyalty and brotherhood: No Marine left behind.

“We have some real success stories here,” Hernandez said. “We’re seeing great things happen.”

Students helping students

There’s a current student who could perhaps be the poster girl for everything FGCU can be for veterans: Nikki Gowing, president of the SWS chapter and a senior biology major with a chemistry minor who plans to attend medical school at the University of South Florida.

Like most students, Gowing first tried college at FGCU fresh out of high school, but, “I was a kid and I wasn’t very smart, and not in the intellectual sense. I just did a lot of not going to class and bombed out. So I went into the military, and it was a real grounding.”

Serving with the Navy in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Japan from 2005-2013, Gowing met her fiancé, a Marine from Tampa, while in the military and they returned to Cape Coral together. She enrolled at FGCU for a semester of academic amnesty to get back on the educational track before diving into a full-time course schedule without a semester break, even returning to school just two weeks after her twins were born. Now, just two years after returning to FGCU as a working student and mother of 2-year-old girls, she plans to graduate in spring 2017 and go on to become a medical doctor.

“After what we learn to shove into 24 hours in the military, school is nothing for me now,” Gowing said.

In what little spare time she has between classes, tutoring at the Center for Academic Achievement and taking turns watching the babies with her husband, who works at the Lee County VA Healthcare Center in Cape Coral, Gowing leads the SWS chapter, which she says has about 40 active members on campus.

“I’m really trying to bring it back … I did a lot of tabling in the spring,” Gowing said of her efforts to promote SWS. “We need more awareness and involvement. We have 210 veterans on campus who aren’t part of our program and aren’t utilizing our services, so we aren’t there yet.”

As part of her legacy when she leaves FGCU as a student, Gowing hopes to shepherd two projects closer to reality this academic year – both of which offer a glimpse into FGCU’s future role as a champion for veterans and, along with the new entrepreneurship program that hasn’t been factored in, are likely to greatly increase FGCU’s national ranking by College Factual above the top 32 percentile of most veteran-friendly colleges and universities in the U.S. (currently No. 463 out of 1,432 evaluated).

One of Gowing’s dreams is a mentoring program on campus in which veterans mentor fellow students who are considering military careers. “We can walk them through the process so they know the true benefits of joining the military and don’t get railroaded,” Gowing said. “I’m really excited about it.”

The other is one she shares with Wright-Isak and others who are ground forces for even greater FGCU involvement in veterans’ affairs. “We’re trying to get a one-stop veterans center on campus, so veterans can find and get all their benefits in one place,” Gowing said. “We’re working with the VA, but we don’t want them to be ever-present. We don’t want to be more bureaucracy. We want our center to be all about student veterans.”