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Groton — To thank veterans for their service year-round, the University of Connecticut opened its new Veterans Center Monday at the Avery Point campus.
“To me this is a small thing we can do for all of you, for all you’ve done for this country,” Michael Alfultis, the campus director and a retired Coast Guard captain, said at the grand opening.
Several of the student veterans in attendance said the ribbon cutting was the perfect way to celebrate Veterans Day, since veterans now have a place on campus to meet and share stories with others who truly understand what they are going through.
Joseph Coney and David Kurokawa said the transition from the military to college can be difficult, and at times, overwhelming. Both men served in the Army, deployed to Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom and earned the rank of staff sergeant.
“We really want to facilitate the same brotherhood and camaraderie that we had in the military,” Coney said.
“It’s one thing to go to the student union and see other people from your classes, but you don’t necessarily have the same connection. … It’s easier, always, for a veteran to talk to another veteran,” added Kurokawa.
About 11 percent of the 628 undergraduates at Avery Point are veterans, which is a higher percentage than at the main campus in Storrs. At the center, veterans can learn about accessing their benefits, study and socialize with other veterans.
Alfultis said he would like to eventually start a tutoring program where veterans from the community tutor student veterans, since some of the students may be reluctant to ask for help from the younger undergraduates who tutor at the Academic Center. He said he would also like to invite state and federal veterans service representatives to the center to answer questions about benefits.
Coney, Kurokawa, and two Navy veterans, Jay Jennett and Jack Srimakut, will manage the center through a work-study program run by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The center is in two rooms on the second floor of the library, which were previously empty and renovated over the summer. One room will be used for studying while the other will serve as a lounge.
“When I first got here we didn’t have a veterans’ spot, so I felt kind of alone. I didn’t know anyone,” Srimakut said. “This is where you can get to know your peers, people who went through what we went through. It’s good to have this.”
U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, former Congressman Rob Simmons and Jennett spoke at the opening. Jennett, who served 20 years in the submarine force, thanked the administrators on behalf of the veterans for giving them such a nice space.
Simmons, a retired Army colonel, spoke about how he and other Vietnam veterans were treated poorly on college campuses after the war.
“The academic community and the military community never should have had that separation. It never should have taken place,” Simmons said. “… So it gives me a particular pride and satisfaction to come here to UConn Avery Point today, to see that you’ve created a space that welcomes our veterans.”
Courtney, D-2nd District, said all of the local Veterans Day ceremonies are wonderful but Avery Point’s is special because “something really tangible is being conveyed to the veterans in this area.”
“It sends a very powerful message we have to do more than honor and take a moment to reflect, but also to really follow through in terms of real tangible help and assistance,” he said.
In a separate ceremony in Hartford, state officials gathered as Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed two bills to improve the services for the state’s veterans.
Local and regional school boards can now award high school diplomas to Vietnam-era veterans who left high school before graduating for military service, and municipalities have the option of expanding the municipal tax exemption for veterans rated 100 percent disabled by the VA.
Malloy said Veterans Day is an opportunity to “express our admiration, respect and appreciation for the men and women who served our country in uniform” and these new laws “demonstrate our unwavering support for this select group of Americans.”