Just a few days before Mess Night — the Whittier College Student Veterans Organization (WCSVO)’s biggest event of the year — WCSVO President and third-year Joshua Elsen attended an Associated Students of Whittier College (ASWC) Senate meeting to speak out about the treatment of veterans on campus. Elsen expressed frustration with how the College has processed veterans’ financial information and the climate on campus regarding veterans. He claimed that the WCSVO has been forced to advocate for itself because of the lack of institutional support. “These problems are not new. These have been happening for years,” said Elsen, according to the official ASWC Senate Twitter. “I care more about this group than anything else. I put more time and effort into this than anything else. And, at this point, the feeling of the group is, for what?”
While Elsen and the WCSVO’s frustrations have been building over the course of the year, the straw that broke the camel’s back was Mess Night, where the club struggled to secure funding and hit roadblocks in regards to serving the ceremonial wine. Mess Night, one of the Marine Corps’ most celebrated traditions since 1953, is a celebration of military culture and camaraderie (for more on Mess Night, visit page 2).
“Mess Night is sacred to us,” said Elsen. “I hope that we can portray in that room tomorrow night . . . that overall feeling that you get. That sense of awe. I can’t put it to words.” The WCSVO was inspired to throw Mess Night after the passing of Professor of Political Science and Army Veteran Fred Bergerson. “We went to his wake, but, in a sense, we felt a need to bring it home,” said Elsen. The event was held in collaboration with Whittier City Council Member and Marine Corps veteran Henry Buchout. At the Senate meeting, Elsen mentioned the club had been denied their request to serve the ceremonial wine, known as grog, despite the fact that alcohol is served at other College events. The WCSVO offered to pay for it out of their own pockets. “We got told on Monday, [April 1] that we could not have wine,” said Elsen. “So what we were confused about was why we were told [that] just now, when for the last two months we’ve been talking about this? I tried to get an answer, and I did not get a solid answer.” Elsen had reached out to the Veteran Success Office (VSO) Coordinator Paulo Iparraguirre about the wine and a host of other concerns, but feels he did not receive a satisfactory answer.
Iparraguirre has since been replaced as the WCSVO’s advisor by Associate Dean of Campus Life Deanna Merino-Contino and Director of the Office of Equity and Inclusion Jenny Guerra as the advisors for the WCSVO for the remainder of the academic year. Despite this, Iparraguirre will continue to serve as the VSO Coordinator. Iparraguirre could not be reached for comment. After reaching a dead end with the VSO, Elsen went to Senate. “In the military, how we approach things is the chain of command.When my superior above me does not give me an answer, I must go up to the next chain, so Senate was my next point,” said Elsen. Ultimately, Senate funded the wine and, according to Elsen, “a good time was had by all.”
However, not all issues are as neatly wrapped up. Third-year Marine Corps Veteran Aaron Mendoza credits Elsen’s activism in securing the grog, but feels like the issues extend past Mess Night. “To us, it feels like students, faculty, and staff still don’t quite understand who we are,” said Mendoza. “What we’ve seen is that when the talk about veterans come up, it’s usually only talk about PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder], and violence, and conservative [politics]. We’re here to say that it’s not that. We’re very diverse. We have people that come from all over the country to enlist in our military — different religions, orientations, cultures, political views. It’s very different, and we all play different roles.”
Elsen, a Marine Corps Veteran as well, attended Whittier College in 2010 before enlisting and came back in 2017 after being discharged. According to Elsen, the goal of the WCSVO is to “create an advocacy group for veterans, family members of veterans, and anyone interested or supportive of the military environment.” WCSVO is “open to everybody,” as they discuss issues on veteran rights, veteran benefits, and more. WCSVO first became active in November 2017 (for more on the WVSCO, visit thequakercampus.org). “Essentially, we just kind of want to focus on not so much the political aspect of things. While we may be political in nature, we are basically trying to create an advocacy group so that between like the VA [Veterans Affairs], Veteran issues, and the school, we can kind of coordinate together and figure out how we can thrive.”
WCSVO falls under the umbrella of the Office of Equity and Inclusion as opposed to an independent administrative office, such as Disability Services or the Counseling Center. While veterans at Whittier are a small and diverse population, as both Elsen and Mendoza are quick to mention, the placement has caused some confusion as to the club’s role on campus. “The military culture is an identity to explore, [but] our organization was not designed to fit that category. Our organization was designed to be administrative,” said Elsen. “We’re just an avenue to say, ‘Hey, I’m having issues with my VA bill,’ not ‘Okay, you know, let’s talk about the 250,000 homeless veterans on the streets.’”
As part of ongoing efforts to improve the situation, Merino-Contino said, “One thing, I think, to understand is that there’s been a lot of transition [with professional staff], and one of the things we’re finding is that there needs to be better communication, better collaboration with the Business Office. We’ve been meeting with them, and now we’re going to do monthly meetings with them to create standard operating procedures as to how we work with veterans.” Although no decision has been made about restructuring the VSO, both Merino-Contino and Associate Director of Communications Ericka Iniguez confirmed they are, “open to having the conversation.”
The Quaker Campus will continue to report on this story as it develops.