News | November 10, 2016

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FGCU honors veterans at appreciation luncheon

3 - minute read

Dr. Chris Wright-Isak, assistant professor of marketing, warned the crowd of about 100 gathered in the Cohen Center ballroom Thursday that she was going to get emotional soon after she took the podium.Web Extra Icon

The occasion was Florida Gulf Coast University’s annual salute to students, faculty and staff who served in the U.S. Armed Forces — the 12th annual Veterans Day Appreciation Luncheon. And just as she predicted, the moment when Wright-Isak had to fight back tears came quickly, when she began the POW/MIA Empty Table Ceremony.

“We don’t forget those who aren’t with us, those who aren’t able to be with us today,” Wright-Isak said.

Nikki Gowing, president of the Students Who Served RSO on campus, addresses the crowd at the 12th annual Veterans Day Appreciation Luncheon in the Cohen Center ballroom.
Nikki Gowing, president of the Students Who Served RSO on campus, addresses the crowd at the 12th annual Veterans Day Appreciation Luncheon in the Cohen Center ballroom.

With Armando Hernandez — Marine veteran, FGCU graduate student and Warrior Health and Fitness Program coordinator on campus — standing to her right, Wright-Isak haltingly fought her way through telling the crowd the symbolism behind the table, place setting and empty chair put in front of the room in honor of prisoners of war and those missing in action. After each verse, Hernandez quietly rang a small bell and recited, “Remember.”

It was the only solemn moment during a gathering that celebrated and honored those military veterans in the FGCU community who come to the university with life experiences that can’t be replicated in a classroom. While enjoying food from Mission BBQ, an annual lunch provider at the event, veterans sitting at tables of six got to meet, greet and exchange service stories while Wright-Isak singled out several for their help, not the least of whom are Gary and Ilene Bickel, university donors who help make this special day happen.

Certificates of appreciation went to two traditional community partners: the Military Officers Association of America-Lee Coast Chapter and the Bonita Bay Veterans Council, a highly active organization in Southwest Florida. Individual honors went to Hernandez, who orchestrates the health and fitness program for veterans founded by Home Base in Boston and based locally at Marieb Hall; alum Corey James, a former Marine who started the Students Who Served chapter at FGCU and is now, among other things, implementing a JROTC program at Lee County middle schools; FGCU political science Professor Eric Strahorn; and the featured speaker, Nikki Gowing, president of the FGCU chapter of Students Who Served.

Gowing is a Cape Coral native who says she bombed out academically at FGCU the first semester she attended here. She returned to school after serving eight years in the Navy and two more as a reserve, and now she juggles raising 2½-year-old twin daughters with her fiancé (she also took in her 18-year-old nephew after her sister died this past summer) with tutoring/teaching at-risk students and preparing to graduate in spring 2017 with a major in biology and minor in chemistry after just three years. Her next assignment: medical school.

Speaking of the special camaraderie shared among veterans, Gowing told the gathering, “We are not black or white, nor brown or yellow. We are not Republicans or Democrats, we are not gay or straight, we are not red, white or blue. We are all of these things … and we are none of these things. See us for what we are. We are veterans. We are Americans.”

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