Army Preventive Medicine Specialist Elli Cline can’t speak about being sexually assaulted on her tour of duty at Central Michigan University’s Veterans’ Resource Center.
It isn’t that the CMU junior doesn’t want to talk to a counselor or military adviser about her sexual assault, it’s that the VRC’s small office makes it uncomfortable for her to openly express her problems, concerns and struggles about military-related issues, Cline said.
The VRC serves 350-400 CMU student veterans on campus and about 1,300 globally. The VRC‘s main office is 7 ½ feet by 20 feet, a former loading dock for Warriner Hall.
Student Veterans of America President Nick Mellon said as veterans keep returning from a fourteen-year war and their college enrollment is at an all-time high, it is imperative for the VRC to have a space that makes veterans feel welcome, safe and valued.
Nick Badgero, Marine veteran and CMU senior, said the VRC’s small size also limits the number of people who can be served at one time and affects student veterans’ confidentiality because they can’t speak with someone without being overheard by others in the office.
Veterans’ Resource Center Director Duane Kleinhardt said having veterans’ offices on college campuses is a resurgence of an older phenomenon. After Vietnam, both Michigan State University and Central Michigan University created veteran organizations to handle the influx of troops.
During the late 80s and early 90s, these organizations were not serving as many military-related personnel and were eventually shut down, Kleinhardt said.
“Like many other large organizations, space is at a premium,” Kleinhardt said. “This space was available five years ago when they stood the VRC up and it [the VRC] needed its presence to be felt on CMU’s main campus.”
The VRC has outgrown the temporary space it was provided five years ago, Badgero said.
“Wheel chair access isn’t even possible in our office and we have to move things around just to get them in,” Badgero said. “How can a Veterans’ Resource Center not be compliant with ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] Standards, it makes no sense.”
The VRC handles a range of disabilities including missing limbs, paraplegics and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Kleinhardt said.
The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990 and ensures all those with disabilities equal opportunities to government services, public accommodations, transportation, commercial services and employment.
Because Warriner Hall was built before 1990, the Veterans’ Resource Center is technically ADA compliant since the building was exempt from most of the ADA mandates. Veterans’ advocates like Badgero say the issue isn’t technical compliance, but whether the space is adequately serving the purpose.
For instance, ADA rules include mobility standards:
- Room for a wheelchair to maneuver freely, turn around and exit the premises on their own.
- A quick and safe way for disabled persons to exit the premises in case of emergency.
- The ability to open all doors with a closed fist.
- A clear circle available for a person with a cane to navigate.
(A list of all ADA requirements and exemptions can be found at www.ada.gov.)
Kleinhardt said the VRC is ADA compliant, but may not be “ADA optimized” and there is an unofficial, on-going plan to move the VRC, along with other student services, to the lower floor of Ronan. He could not state a specific time frame, but estimated it to be about two to three years away.
“Things at a university don’t always move at a rocket’s pace,” Kleinhardt said. “But all things considered, it will be the space we want and we design.”
Included in Kleinhardt’s future architectural goal for the VRC would be a conference room, offices for Student Veterans of America and Peer Advisers for Veteran Education, and a veterans’ lounge.
For Cline, having to go into the VRC on CMU’s campus is a dreadful though. Cline suffers from PTSD stemming from her assault while on duty at a hospital in Hawaii.
“There are no windows and the space feels very cramped,” Cline said. “Pair that with the strain of being around my male peers in confined spaces, it doesn’t make me feel very good.”
Giving the veterans more value, worth and a place to go would be the biggest benefit of a larger space for them on campus, Badgero said.
“It’s important to realize that the VRC functions as both a front-line office and liaison to the community,” Badgero said. “Every time CMU has a campus visit day or orientation day, veterans and families of veterans stop by the office and this is one of their first impressions of CMU and [it] directly reflects how CMU values their veterans.”