A Five-Star Support System

Laura Tolver SNC’17

Laura Tolver SNC’17

Veterans at Rutgers–Camden excel with specialized services to meet their needs

By Sam Starnes

When Laura Tolver SNC’17 was honorably discharged from the U.S. Marines Corps, she carried a secret with her.

She ended her military service, where she had served admirably as an aircraft mechanic, to care for her ailing father, who had suffered a brain injury.

But that wasn’t her secret.

It wasn’t until after she enrolled in Rutgers University–Camden that she addressed the pain she’d concealed. “I was sexually assaulted while I was in the military,” Tolver said. “I kept silent for such a long time, but the assault was like a thorn in my side that I needed to address in order to find peace.”

She learned from the on-campus Office of Veterans Affairs that she could access support for many issues, including sexual trauma. Fred Davis, the office’s director, learned of Tolver’s situation and connected her with a counselor in the Vet Center in Philadelphia. “They helped me with counseling, and that helped me to grasp and be vocal about what happened,” Tolver said.

Tolver, who came to Rutgers–Camden with a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies from Wilmington University, went on to be a star student, earning a bachelor’s in nursing in May with honors. She landed a nursing position as a trauma ICU nurse at Cooper University Hospital in Camden, and also enrolled in the Rutgers–Camden doctor of nursing practice program. “She is a very strong and talented individual who has overcome tremendous obstacles to succeed,” Davis said.

Her many accolades include being named a Tillman Scholar by the Pat Tillman Foundation. She is one of only two students in New Jersey to earn the honor named for Tillman, an Arizona Cardinals player who left the NFL to enlist after the terrorist attacks of 2001 and was killed while serving in Afghanistan.

Tolver said her success wouldn’t have been possible without the support from Rutgers–Camden, particularly Davis and the late Joshua Piccoli CCAS’14, a beloved staff member in the office who died in 2016. “The veterans services office at Rutgers–Camden took care of me,” she said. “They showed me benefits for vets that I didn’t even know existed, which made my Rutgers degree affordable and accessible.”

Group shot: Fred Davis, center, founding director of the Rutgers–Camden Office of Veterans Affairs, with six of the more than 400 veteran students on campus, including Drew Bendler, third from left.

Group shot: Fred Davis, center, founding director of the Rutgers–Camden Office of Veterans Affairs, with six of the more than 400 veteran students on campus, including Drew Bendler, third from left.

Serving Those Who Served

Taking care of more than 400 Rutgers–Camden student-veterans enrolled in undergraduate and graduate programs is what the program is all about, said Davis, a Navy veteran and retired Camden police detective who has directed the office since it began in 2009. “The men and the women who serve in the military take away a piece of their life,” he said. “They are giving up their time. We need programs like this to help them transition back into the civilian world.”

Davis said the key elements of the Rutgers–Camden program are staff contacts familiar with issues specific to veterans, including matters of health and financial aid. Veterans also benefit from a lounge on campus where they can study or hang out and a special orientation session catering to their needs.

Rutgers–Camden has been consistently recognized as a highly ranked university for veterans to attend and has earned many distinctions: being the first college in New Jersey named a Purple Heart University by the Military Order of the Purple Heart; earning a Yellow Ribbon school designation; gaining membership in the Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges; and repeatedly being named a “Military Friendly” school by G.I. Jobs magazine. Military Times magazine also ranked Rutgers University second in the nation in its Best for Vets 2017 rankings.

Mike Chewkanes CCAS’76, GSC’07 served eight years in the U.S. Air Force before enrolling at Rutgers–Camden in 1973. A retired Camden County prosecutor, he returned near the end of his career to earn a master’s degree in criminal justice and has since taught in the undergraduate criminal justice program. A strong supporter of the Office of Veterans Affairs, he said the university’s efforts are far-reaching. “Supporting veterans who live locally in South Jersey helps the campus, the alumni, and the community,” Chewkanes said.

A Combat Veteran’s Perspective

Drew Bendler said the plaudits the university receives for its care for vets are well-deserved. A U.S. Army veteran from Camden, he served from 1984 to 1987. He was working as a postal carrier in 2003 when he was inspired to return to duty. “When the war broke out in Iraq, I said, ‘I’ve got to go back,’” Bendler said.

His return to duty lasted 10 years, and included 13 months as an infantry squad leader in combat. As a result, he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He said he has received much support at Rutgers–Camden with his treatment, as well as issues he faces in caring for his ailing mother. He said he is enjoying working toward a degree in mathematics education and psychology. “I love it here,” Bendler said. “It has worked out to be the best thing I’ve ever done.”

Posted in: 2017 FALL

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