According to data provided by Rutgers University on their website, there are over 1,900 veteran students currently enrolled. Given the widely varying nature of military service, the toll on body and mind, and the at times truly epic amounts of red tape, any learning institution worth the paper on which it prints its diplomas would do well to have a special team on hand to accommodate their veteran students. Here at Rutgers Camden, we are privileged enough to have one of those teams of our very own. One such member of this team is Jake Kopach of the Rutgers-Camden Office of Military and Veterans’ Affairs. Jake was kind enough to speak to the Gleaner and go over some of the events both past and future they have for veterans to engage with here.
In particular, the Veteran Artifact Exhibit was just concluded on March 10th. A myriad of historic wartime artifacts that have been lovingly curated by the Gloucester County VFW was brought in along with items from current Rutgers student veterans for all to look at and enjoy.
Despite how successful the event was, it had some humble origins:
“I was tossing ideas around at home, drinking.” said Mr. Kopach, “It gave me an idea for the students to put stuff on display. …I was led to Ed (Ed Walens, the gentleman who runs the Gloucester County VFW museum) who gave us all the stuff to use,” he continued.
“Ed’s, you know, great.” Mr. Kopach paused, gathering his thoughts before he elaborated: “He served in the Korean war. Good dude, very eager. Right now we’re working with him to bring his entire museum to Rutgers and house it here permanently. Right now it’s at the Gloucester county VFW and it’s not great over there. It’s in a cramped attic space. We’d love to have it here on campus in a nicer area.”
Just like how “no plan survives first contact with the enemy,” there must surely have been one speed bump or another in getting together something of this magnitude. Mr. Kopach obliged thusly:
“The logistics were weird, I had to go through the university to get containers. One of my biggest challenges was actually getting stuff from the students to put in, that was the entire idea, and it didn’t really happen and only 3 students really contributed stuff.”
We agreed that the Revolutionary War and World War I items were probably the most interesting of the lot. With the past covered, the topic of the conversation turned towards the future. When asked about what our Veteran students had to look forward to from his office, he spoke of the then-upcoming Global War on Terror veterans’ panel coming as part of their Speakers Series. Captain Mark Bodrog, and Rob Collins, United States Marine Corps veterans and Rutgers alums both, would be coming to share their stories with us.
Next semester we can also look forward to another Speaker Series event – a member of the venerated Tuskegee Airmen, upwards of 100 years old, will be here to share their stories with our lucky students. Items from a state run Tuskegee Airmen museum may also be on display. The event will, according to Jake Kopach, most likely be held in conjunction with other associations on campus like the History department and the honors college. Finally, Mr. Kopach offered up a little information about himself and his office.
“Between 2013 and 2017, that’s when I served in the Marines,” he said. “I was an 0311 (infantry rifleman) with Third Battalion, Sixth Marines. After getting out, I enrolled in college. I was struggling with my own veteran identity, and I wanted to get back to being around vets and working to help them. I reached out to Fred for any paid/volunteer work where I could be near vets, and he offered me to work here.” He continued, “After being injured & being in Wounded Warriors East, being told I was done, was a bit of a shock. It was hard to determine what I wanted to do. That’s when I pivoted. If I couldn’t help marines in the field I’d help ‘em when they came home.”
Finally came a little summary of the services him and the Rutgers VA staff had to offer our student vets.
“We offer a wide variety of conventional and unconventional issues, and the conventional side is obviously lots of helping people get their benefits. We really want to be the best liaisons we can be between our students and the VA office. We also offer these workshops and events to build camaraderie among those of us here who have served and to help get our stories out there. On the less conventional side, we’ve had vets just come in with, maybe they have mental health issues for instance, and we’ve connected them to resources, be it the vet center of Philadelphia or even just a helping hand on campus.”
Above: Fred Davis, Director of the Rutgers-Camden Office of Military & Veterans’ Affairs (left), meets with Ed Walens, Curator & Caretaker of the VFW Gloucester Donald “Doc” Doherty Veterans Museum.
Ed Walens commiserates with a fellow veteran.
Fred Davis and Jake Kopach of the Military & Veterans’ Affairs office are joined with Rutgers student veterans as they present Ed Walens with a certificate of appreciation.