Adventure Connects Terp Veterans to Campus and Each Otherby Chris Carroll | Photos by John T. Consoli and Edwin Remsberg
A flotilla of newly minted kayakers pulled up on the Maryland shore of the Potomac River after splashing through their first-ever rapids. Some were fast learners who had sliced between the rocks near Offutt Island without drama. Others spun in slo-mo over the breaking waves. One boater capsized with a roar and flailed to the surface farther downstream.
Featherine Anderson emerged sitting upright, but she floated near the riverbank looking markedly skeptical.
“It was … okay,” she said of the whitewater she’d just come through. She was envisioning two even more difficult stretches that awaited her downstream. “What did they say the rating was for this one?”
A fellow new paddler responded that he thought it was a Class II rapid, rated easy enough for novices, when Mike Beahm, who was lounging comfortably in his craft, broke in.
“That was a Class IV, no, make it a Class V—that’s what we’re going to tell people,” he exhorted, as the group prepared to shove off downriver. “We’re gonna do this and get through it just fine.”
Beahm, one of the trip’s leaders, has spent a good chunk of his life coaxing and cajoling people through far less appealing tasks than recreational kayaking. The 39-year-old retired from active duty in the Army National Guard last year as a sergeant first class in charge of his unit’s readiness.
The kayak trip was part of the Veteran Adventure Orientation Program, sponsored by UMD’s Veteran Student Life office and RecWell’s Adventure Program. It’s just one of the ways the University of Maryland reaches out to this population that has different experiences, needs and concerns than most students, and begins knitting them into a mutually supporting group of friends and advisers based around the warrior ethos: Leave no one behind.
The nine participants on the mid-August overnight outing were veterans newly enrolled at the University of Maryland. Highly trained, low-key, upbeat, diverse and polite (although a Marine sergeant in the group said he could “assemble an impressive string” of expletives if called upon), they’re typical U.S. military members. Most have seen more of the world and what it has to offer, both good and bad, than their non-military peers.
Their accomplishments don’t always shield them from a range of doubts: about transitioning into college life; about how they’ll fit in socially or politically; about nuts-and-bolts worries like paying for school or balancing university studies and family life.
“For me, it was age—kind of a worry of being seen as the creepy old guy skulking around campus,” said Beahm, an information systems major. “So when I started, I was going to classes and just keeping to myself.”
A big mission of Veteran Student Life is to prevent isolation of the sort Beahm initially experienced. He found an encouraging network when he connected with the student group Terp Vets, and helped this summer in an effort to call every incoming student veteran to welcome them and invite them on the Potomac kayaking trip.
One of the seeming naturals on the water was Chris Beebe, a former cryptological technician who left the Navy in June to enroll as an undergrad in Maryland’s highly ranked electrical and computer engineering program.
“I expected to come here and fend for myself,” he said, taking a break from practice in the shade of a giant oak towering over the river. “It was really nice to get a call and be able to talk to someone for 45 minutes, ask questions and have them say, ‘Hey, we’re looking forward to your arrival.’ That sure never happened in the military.”
He’d spoken to Aaron Anderson, another kayaking leader and a graduate assistant in Veteran Student Life. Like many veterans, the former Army staff sergeant and current public policy grad student is into fitness, outdoor sports and the occasional adrenaline rush.
“I sort of integrated slowly into the campus,” said Anderson, who is not related to Featherine Anderson. “The [Veteran Adventure Orientation Program] didn’t exist in this form when I started, but I think it would have been very helpful. I think I would have connected more quickly to this community we have here, and it’s a great community.”
U.S. military veterans on campus number about 1,200, about one-fourth of whom are in regular touch with Veteran Student Life, says Brian Bertges, an Army veteran who runs the office. “They may or may not want to be involved, but we want to make sure they know we’re here to help if they need something,” he says.
That help can range from social activities to career counseling to referrals to physical and psychological support for those suffering both visible and invisible wounds from the long wars of the post-Sept. 11 era, he says.
For Anderson, the No. 1 issue he needed advice about was navigating the bureaucracy around veterans’ tuition benefits. “Sometimes it’s like, OK, I’m not working anymore; I’m in school. When is that payment coming?”
Day one of the kayak trip was dedicated to practicing near the shore. At dusk, the group hiked toward a campsite about a mile down the C&O Canal towpath. As they prepared to set out, the clouds released a drenching downpour, which seemed to bother no one.
“Rain only sucks if you say it sucks,” said Marine staff sergeant Ben Johanson. “We used to say, ‘Embrace the suck.’ If you try to fight it, you’re just going to hate life. Go with it.”
An astronomy undergrad, Johanson said he was grateful for the chance to ease into university life with other veterans through the adventure program. UMD’s active veterans community was one of the top reasons he chose the university, and the husband and father of two says he expects to rely on the advice of more experienced students about how to balance academics and family life.
“What I’m hoping is that I can make this work like a job—work hard during the day at the university and then get home and focus on my family,” he says.
Another minor, yet common worry for him and other new veterans is politics: How will they be received as former warfighters on a university campus, an environment that military members sometimes envision as a left-wing funhouse? “I’ve thought about that, and if politics comes up as an issue, I’m going to bite my tongue and agree to disagree.”
Dodging puddles during the hike, Featherine Anderson, a former captain in the Army Medical Service Corps who is pursuing an MBA at Maryland, said an unspoken bond had already formed.
“I just met everyone here; I already feel totally comfortable,” she said. “There are shared values, things you hold near and dear to yourself and standards you hold yourself to. You look out for one another because it’s in you to do it. Maybe it’s a little different in the civilian sector, where there’s a more individualistic approach as opposed to a group effort. With us, being a team is what’s ingrained.”
The following day, Anderson conquered her apprehension, along with the more difficult whitewater farther down the Potomac. At Class III Stubblefield Falls, she wedged between two rocks, pointing in the wrong direction.
An Adventure Program guide tried to power upstream to free her, but couldn’t make it through the rushing torrent. Anderson realized what she would have to do: run the rapids in reverse.
“I thought about the training, where they told us, ‘Respect the water; don’t try to fight it,’” she said. “Going through rapids backwards probably isn’t the best thing to do, but I said a prayer, and pushed myself away from the rocks, and I made it.”
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