UK observes Veterans Day by celebrating ‘great blessing’ of veterans


UK Provost David Blackwell joins Director of Veterans Resource Center Tony Dotson and UK student Eric Haley during the university’s Veterans Day observance on Nov. 9, 2018 in Lexington, Ky.

Jacob Eads

On a rainy Friday some joked it might’ve been better to observe Veteran’s Day outside– that way the university’s Marines could feel more comfortable.

Members of the UK community met today to celebrate the campus’s veterans two days prior to Armistice Day, which is typically observed on Nov. 11.

But while the afternoon’s speakers came to praise UK’s own veterans, it was evident they sparked some larger conversations about the importance of those who serve.

“Veteran’s Day is really… to celebrate the great blessing we have of the veterans that are working and have worked to protect our way of life,” said Provost David Blackwell.

Speaker Eric Haley isn’t necessarily a conventional UK student. The sophomore psychology and history major has served four combat deployments in the Army totaling 13 years of service. That’s not something you could say about many of UK’s students. 

But Haley is just one of the campus’s student veterans who decided to head off to college after a career in the military. Haley said he is all too familiar with the experiences Army life offers, but he is now adjusting to life at UK.

 “When I raised my hand and recited the oath of enlistment I knew I was choosing country over self,” said Haley. “I signed up for the unknown.”

And he said that unknown came with some sacrifices. Unlike a majority of UK students, Haley has three kids at home. 

But after starting a family and ending an extensive and exciting career in the military, Haley said he was ready to go back to school.

“My transition was hard. All I knew was the Army,” he said. 

Today Haley made it clear that being a student veteran comes with its own challenges, but assured the other students in the room that he isn’t so different than they are.

“We’re just a little bit older, maybe had some different experiences, but we’re here to get our education just like they are,” Haley said.

Other students said they walked away from today’s celebration with the same sentiment. 

“I don’t think it crosses people’s minds nearly enough,” said sophomore international studies major Bailey Ziman. “I definitely think spreading awareness like this is could be helpful for everybody.”

While Haley did his share of highlighting UK’s student veterans today, others chose to spend their time speaking about the way the country accepts its veterans.

“We’ve been at war since 2001, but there’s rarely been a day when I’ve woken up and felt like our country has been at war. These men and women are the ones out there protecting our way of life,” said Blackwell.

Blackwell said he credits his family’s long history of serving in the military with teaching him about servant leadership. Blackwell served in the Army, and both of his parents also held careers in the military. 

“There’s no doubt that it’s helped me,” said Blackwell. “That’s where you learn it [servant leadership], is in the military.”

Others on UK’s campus say they’re happy today’s celebration could bring attention to the country’s veterans, but that there’s also more to be done.

 “People want to know more about our veterans,” said Director of UK’s Veterans Resource Center Tony Dotson. “Ignorance is a dangerous thing, but even more so in an institution of higher learning.”

Dotson, who also held an extensive career in the military, didn’t shy away from talking about the tough realities many veterans face after they return from deployment.

Ever since the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs released a report detailing years of veteran suicide rates in 2013, it’s long been reported that around 22 veterans commit suicide every day in the United States.

But while some say that number isn’t necessarily reflective of the actual rate, Dotson said it doesn’t matter. He said even if the actual rate is higher or lower than 22, it’s still too high.

“If you skate, that’s an NHL hockey team plus two. If you prefer basketball, that’s a really deep bench. If it’s football season, some of you would have to play both offense and defense,” Dotson said. 

So Dotson is urging UK, and the rest of the country, to take a closer look at how it’s treating its veterans.

“You can’t tell by looking at a veteran who it is that’s hurting. You can’t put us all in the same box,” said Dotson. “We are individuals. We are just people with our own experiences, our own stories and our challenges.”