Missouri Western assists veterans
Several campuswide initiatives to serve veterans and active-duty military have resulted in a prestigious recognition, a course held on an air base, a new partnership and a more military-friendly University.
The efforts have been led by Dr. Gordon Mapley and Mary Marston in the Western Institute.
“There is a continuum across the country of how universities respond to the needs of active-duty military and veterans,” Dr. Mapley said. “My goal is to move Missouri Western to the top end of that continuum and be as proactive and helpful as we can be in providing pathways and services that will help veterans and active-duty military earn collegiate degrees.”
Toward that end, Missouri Western recently became a part of the General Education Mobile Program (GEM) with the Community College of the Air Force (CCAF). That partnership means members of the Air Force can take general education courses online through Missouri Western to earn their Associate in Applied Science degree from the CCAF. At the same time, Dr. Mapley is working on allowing more courses from the CCAF to be used toward Missouri Western’s Bachelor of Science in Technology degree.
Additionally, this past fall, the University offered a communication class on site to airmen at the 139th Airlift Wing at Rosecrans in St. Joseph. The course, Dr. Mapley says, is the first of several planned to be held on the base.
Missouri Western is also working with Fort Leavenworth on possible partnership programs, and is developing more online bachelor’s degrees, which work well for military personnel.
Over the past year, Marston met with several offices across campus in an effort to streamline the University’s services and processes for veterans and members of the military. She formed a Military Friendly Committee on campus and developed a comprehensive website to centralize information about services and resources for active military and veteran students, missouriwestern.edu/military.
She is also working with several community groups, including the Community Veterans Engagement, which serves Platte and Buchanan counties in Missouri and Leavenworth and Wyandotte counties in Kansas.
And Marston’s work has paid off. In November 2017, Missouri Western was notified that it received a 2018 Gold Level Military Friendly School designation from Victory Media. According to the website, militaryfriendly.com, “Military Friendly is the standard that measures an organization’s commitment, effort and success in creating sustainable and meaningful benefit for the military community.”
“We’re very proud of that designation,” Marston said. “We want to be proactively military friendly.”
Zachary Kerns ’98: Back home to lead
Lieutenant Colonel Zachary Kerns ’98 was digging through some old photos and found one of himself when he was a cadet in Missouri Western’s military science program in 1996. “I hung it on the wall by my office door to remind myself of where I was at their (current cadets) age and everything I’ve done since.”
LTC Kerns’ wall and office door happen to be pretty close to the current cadets, because he returned to his alma mater last summer as the director of Missouri Western’s ROTC program.
“I’ve always wanted to come back, it’s always been my dream,” he said.
Enrolling at Missouri Western after graduating from Central High School in St. Joseph, LTC Kerns said he wanted to quit about halfway through the first semester until he discovered the ROTC program. “That gave me the goal I was looking for. It was a good fit.”
The military science program became his campus home, and he says he spent the majority of his college career with ROTC-related activities.
“Every opportunity they gave me, I jumped on.”
He graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Construction Engineering Technology and began serving in the Army. His career has spanned the globe and included a number of deployments, always with a mission of fighting the war on terrorism.
In addition to earning a Master of Arts in Interagency Studies from University of Kansas-Lawrence, his military education has included Basic and Advanced Infantry Officer courses,
Special Forces Qualification Course, Command and General Staff College, SOCOM Operational Design course, Joint Warfighters Course, Ranger school, Airborne Jumpmaster, Air Assault, and SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape). LTC Kerns is a member of the Green Berets.
“I was looking for adventure and I got that. I wanted to have lots of good stories to tell as an old man.”
LTC Kerns said the best part about the military is the people you work with, and the best part about being in charge of the ROTC program is spending time with the cadets and mentoring them. He is responsible for the Pony Express Battalion, which includes eight partner schools along with Missouri Western. There are approximately 75 cadets currently in the program.
“ROTC offers good quality hands-on leadership training, and there are so many different opportunities,” he said. “It’s great to be back at Missouri Western where I got my start.”
And if he ever forgets, he just has to glance at the wall by his office door.
Col. Grace Link ’92: Proud to serve
In June 2017, Col. Grace Link ’92 was honored as the keynote speaker at the YWCA Women of Excellence Luncheon in St. Joseph. She told the audience of more than 1,000 how important her family and her Missouri Air National Guard colleagues are to her.
“It really takes a lot of people coming together to help you succeed,” she said. “We succeed because of the great people who have helped us. I wouldn’t be where I am without them.”
Col. Link also talked about her proud service with the Air National Guard and her career over more than two decades. Two years ago, she was promoted to Director of Staff for the Air Guard at the Joint Force Headquarters-Missouri in Jefferson City.
Col. Link, who grew up in Chicago, was a member of the Illinois Air National Guard in Chicago for seven months when she and her husband, Scott, moved to St. Joseph and she began working full-time as an Inventory Management Specialist for the Air Guard in St. Joseph. Not long after moving, she enrolled at Missouri Western to major in electronics engineering technology.
“The one thing I really enjoyed about Missouri Western was that there was a lot more one-on-one with professors. They have time to take a vested interest in each student,” Col. Link said.
In fact, she credits Dr. John Atkinson with leading her in the right direction with math classes. He told her to take calculus-based math classes, and she said she would not have gotten into graduate school without those classes. “It was really good advice.”
In 1992, Col. Link graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Electronics Engineering Technology and continued her education at Oklahoma State University where she earned a Master of Science in Civil Engineering. Over her military career, she has completed Squadron Officer School, Air Command and Staff College, Air War College, and Joint and Command Warfighting School at National Defense University in Virginia. She was promoted to Colonel in September 2016.
Because of her engineering background, her deployments have primarily focused on construction and humanitarian missions, such as reconstructing orphanages in Europe, ensuring that there was safe water in Panama and completing construction projects in the United States for the Wounded Warrior project. She loves helping out in communities while representing her country, including responding to emergencies in the state.
“The great thing about being in construction is that you leave something behind, you can see the results of your work,” she said.
Prior to her current position in Jefferson City, she was the Deputy Mission Support Group Commander for the 139th Airlift Wing in St. Joseph.
Her son and daughter are both members of the Guard, and her son is currently a student at Missouri Western. Her husband retired from the Guard.
“Being a member of the Missouri National Guard has been the most rewarding career experience I could have ever imagined,” Col. Link said. “The Missouri National Guard paid for my education, afforded me the opportunity to travel all over the world, and most of all has been the greatest family anybody could have ever asked for! People often ask why I work so hard. It’s the least I can do to give back!”
LTC Matthew Gragg ’97: University connections
Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Gragg ’97 says his most memorable experience as a student was the relationships he built, and a couple of those relationships brought him back to campus this past fall. He had been invited to campus by Head Football Coach Matt Williamson ’96, his Griffon football teammate, but he also visited with Lieutenant Colonel Zac Kerns 98, director of Missouri Western’s ROTC program, his former fellow cadet.
Back on campus for the Oct. 7 annual Military Appreciation Game against Lindenwood University, LTC Gragg spoke to the football team Friday evening, ran in to the stadium with them on Saturday (“That was a real honor”) and flipped the coin to start the game.
“I told them that the position they are in now, even though they are being challenged, will force them to be better men and future leaders.”
And, he says he couldn’t resist telling the football players some funny stories about their coach since he and Williamson were college roommates.
Earlier on Friday, he spoke to several current ROTC cadets about his military experiences, and that as a double homecoming of sorts; LTC Gragg had served as an instructor in Missouri Western’s program from 2006 to 2008.
LTC Gragg graduated from Raymore-Peculiar High School in Peculiar, Missouri and came to Missouri Western on a four-year football scholarship, lettering all four years. He also earned an ROTC scholarship for his last three years of college.
Although football and ROTC kept him busy, he said he appreciated that the two programs collaborated with each other. For example, he said he was excused when the weekly ROTC lab made him late for football practice, and during football season, he was able to suspend the thrice-weekly ROTC physical training program.
“I have no doubt that my 20-plus-year career in the U.S. Army would not have been successful without the foundational leadership instilled in me at Missouri Western,” LTC Gragg said. “The professors, coaches and military instructors challenged me on a daily basis to push beyond my academic and physical limits that ultimately prepared me for the challenges of military service abroad and in combat.”
LTC Gragg graduated with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Physical Education and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Military Police Corps in 1997. He has been deployed to Kosovo once and Bosnia twice, and served combat tours in Iraq (twice) and Afghanistan. Along with St. Joseph, his assignments have included Germany, Hawaii and Virginia. Since 2016, he has been the military police branch chief at Fort Knox, Kentucky.
He has completed Airborne, Jump Master, Air-Assault, Special Reaction Team Course, Hostage Negotiator Course, Non-Lethal Weapons Instructor Course, Combatives Level I and II, the MP Basic Officer Basic Course, the MP Officer Advanced Course, the Combined Arms Service Staff School, the Command and General Staff College, the Joint and Combined Warfighting School, and Senior Service College.
“I would summarize my military career as years of repetitive and tedious field training, staff work, and leadership challenges … punctuated by a few hours of terrifying adrenaline pumping, I can’t believe I’m seeing or doing this, that has all taken place (sometimes simultaneously) in some of the most beautiful and horrible places on earth,” LTC Gragg said. “I’ve had the opportunity to see extreme acts of bravery in places that face absolute evil and desolation as a routine way of life. I couldn’t be more proud of the men and women I’ve served with or the friends and families that have supported them. These experiences have made me better appreciate all the good that we have in America, as well as making me feel a small bit of sadness for what we as a nation tend to think of as important sometimes.”
ROTC: Preparing leaders
Senior Dallas Thomas appreciates all his experiences that he has had with the ROTC program and knows one thing for sure: his resume rocks.
“When I think about my resume and compare it to other students who are not in ROTC, I know I have so much more experience,” he says.
Especially when it comes to leadership, which is what ROTC is all about. Last summer alone, Thomas
was selected for a diplomatic deployment to Argentina for a month, he attended advanced camp, a month-long training at Fort Knox, Kentucky where he served as a squad leader; and he spent a month shadowing an active-duty lieutenant at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
In Argentina, he served with cadets from around the world, learning about Argentina’s military and culture. He said the last time a similar diplomatic group had visited Argentina was in 1964.
About half his visit was spent in Buenos Aires at a military college (similar to West Point in the United States) and the rest was spent at a mountain warfare school in the Andes Mountains in the Patagonia region, where the group used mules to transport military equipment and learned about mountain survival.
“It was an amazing experience, and I made some phenomenal friends,” Thomas said. “The trip taught me a lot about who I am as a person.”
Thomas, a native of Gower, Missouri and a criminal justice major, explained that with each year in the ROTC program, students take on more and more leadership roles. As a senior, he oversees the physical training plans and teaches some of the weekly labs.
Haliey Cheeney, a sophomore in the ROTC program, said this year, she and a fellow cadet are
responsible for creating the 6 a.m., three-times-a-week physical training plans.
When she graduated from high school, the Dawn, Missouri native considered signing on for active-duty military, but received a scholarship from her community to help pay for her freshman year at Missouri Western. Once on campus, her friend, who was a cadet, convinced her to sign up for ROTC classes, “even though I didn’t know what I was getting into,” she said with a laugh. “But I love it.”
Cheeney, a health and exercise science major, received an ROTC scholarship for her sophomore, junior and senior years, and is a member of the Missouri Army National Guard, as is Thomas.
She appreciates all the experiences she has had and knows she is building her confidence and leadership skills. Cheeney said she loves flying in the Chinook helicopters whenever they go to their field training exercises at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas or Fort Riley, Kansas.
Like Cheeney, Thomas says being able to develop his character and leadership skills through ROTC has been invaluable, and he appreciates the opportunity to work closely with the cadre (instructors and leadership).
“Missouri Western’s by far the best place to do ROTC.”
Students receive Gold Star Family Scholarship
The Missouri Western Foundation recently funded Gold Star Family scholarships for two students whose father, SFC Gary Collins, died in Iraq in 2003. The scholarships, which cover both tuition and fees, were presented to Taylor and Landry Collins at the Oct. 30 Kansas City Chiefs football game at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri.
Taylor, a senior physical education/health and exercise science major, and Landry, a sophomore nursing major, are from St. Joseph. Their mother, Kassie, said her husband was a natural-born soldier who loved his career in the U.S. Army. She added that she is very proud of her daughters and all they have accomplished.
According to its website, Heroes United serves Gold Star Families, the surviving family members of Americans who were killed in action and those who died in the line of duty.
New scholarship benefits veterans
Brad Durham, owner of B-FIT CrossFit and Sports Performance, recently established the B-FIT CrossFit Veterans Scholarship with a gift to the Missouri Western Foundation.
Recipients must be full-time students with a minimum cumulative GPA of 2.5, and must have served in the U.S. military.
B-FIT CrossFit, in St. Joseph, offers programs for children and adults to improve range of motion and core strength.