Veterans Strive to Come All the Way Home

USF launches Veterans Week with emotional discussion of returning veterans’ transition to civilian life.


By Mary Beth Erskine News Writer


TAMPA, Fla. (Nov. 9, 2010) – The message was clear: nobody returns from war unscathed.


Some warriors return missing limbs or one of their senses. Others return physically intact, but amputated emotionally or spiritually. And even those who do not come back wounded, in some respect, return home different than they left.


All are changed.


Yet the common and strongest desire of all veterans is to return to a normal life, to come “all the way” home.


Poignant and powerful, the first event on the University of South Florida’s inaugural Veterans Week agenda silenced the meeting room in the Marshall Student Center, capturing the rapt attention of participants and stirring strong emotions.


Four USF student veterans shared their stories as part of a panel discussion examining the struggles of veterans as they return from war to the lives they had left behind. The discussion followed the presentation of a two-person play titled Into the Fire. Based on true life testimonies, the emotionally intense, two-person play was written and performed by Anthony Curry and Carrie Gibson of Had to Be Productions. It explored the struggles of returning veterans with disabilities and combat-related trauma as they reintegrated into their families, communities, educational institutions and the workforce.


The event launched three days of special programming at USF prior to Veterans Day on Nov. 11 to honor the members of the U.S. Armed Forces, including USF student veterans. Presented by USF’s Office of Veterans Services and the Student Veterans Association, the week will culminate on Wednesday, Nov. 10 with a Veteran’s Day Ceremony featuring a precision landing on campus by the U.S. Special Operations Command Parachute Team, the Para-Commandos, (weather permitting) and keynote address by Lieutenant General Martin R. Steele, U.S. Marine Corps (Ret.).


The student panel included Michael Jernigan, a history major from USF-Petersburg, and three students from the Tampa campus – Tumeka Turner, a management information systems major, and Christian Bengtson and Barbara Bustamante, who are both studying chemistry.


A third-generation Marine, Michael Jernigan served as a corporal with Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment in Mahmudiya, Zaidon, and Falluja. “I received the medal that nobody wants – the Purple Heart,” said Jernigan.


On Aug. 22, 2004, six months into a seven-month deployment, Jernigan was part of a security patrol when a roadside bomb exploded near the Humvee in which he was riding. The blast destroyed both of his eyes, and he suffered permanent damage to his knee and arm.


Tumeka Turner, a staff sergeant with the U.S. Army, is a single mother who left behind a young daughter during deployment to Iraq. A telecommunications specialist, Turner said she was never in the line of fire, “But even if you’re not out there shooting at someone, it’s a life-changing experience.”


Christian Bengston and Barbara Bustamante were also U.S. Army staff sergeants. Bengston joined the military immediately after high school and was in Afghanistan six months after graduation. A demolitions engineer with only basic medical training, he helped save the life of a fellow soldier, shot and severely wounded.


“When you realize your own mortality and how easy it is to lose everything, it changes you,” he said, adding that it takes time to transition back to normal life.


Bustamante, currently president of the Veterans Students Association, served for seven years as a combat medic in the airborne division completing three tours of duty in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. “We’re the same as you,” Bustamante told the audience. “We may tick a little bit differently now, but we want the same things.”


The students reinforced key messages from Curry and Gibson’s play, which was an emotionally charged interpretation of the first-hand accounts of veterans and family members: the desire to fit in on campus, in the workplace and in their families, to be listened to, and to receive the time and understanding they need to transition fully back to civilian life.


“These solders need to tell their stories,” said Curry. “Their measure of healing comes from finding value in their sacrifice.”


“This was a tremendous event with a powerful message that everyone needs to hear,” said Larry Braue, USF director of Veteran Services. “I am so proud to know these four veterans. They represent an entire population of veterans trying to ‘come all the way home’. Our goal here at USF is to help make that happen.”


Mary Beth Erskine can be reached at 813-974-6993.


Into The Fire video clip.