A UNLV student is among 10 veterans nationwide who’ll participate in a legislative fellowship program this spring.
Katherine Cassell was selected for the semester-long program organized by Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and Student Veterans of American (SVA).
The academic program — created in 2013 — allows fellows to work in four areas of veterans policy: student veterans, health care and benefits, transitioning to civilian life, and challenges military service members and their families face, the VFW said in a Jan. 6 statement.
Fellows submitted a proposal for how they’ll seek to address an issue through legislative action. They’ll join more than 500 VFW members in March in Washington, D.C., to advocate on behalf of veterans.
The fellowship program is aimed at giving student veterans the tools and knowledge they need to bring back to their communities, said Pat Murray, deputy director for the VFW’s National Legislative Service. “The biggest thing about this is we want to teach veterans how to be veteran advocates.”
Cassell was already doing that prior to the fellowship, Murray said. “What she’s doing is what we’re trying to teach everyone else how to do.”
Cassell served in three branches of the armed forces — Air Force, Navy and Army — for nearly 20 years and retired in 2015.
The 42-year-old started taking classes at UNLV in 2015 and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 2018. Now, she’s pursuing a graduate certificate in nonprofit management. And this fall, she hopes to start working toward a Master of Public Administration degree.
Ross Bryant, executive director of UNLV’s Military & Veteran Services Center, has known Cassell for about two years in two capacities: as one of his employees and as a fellow member of VFW Post 12101 in Las Vegas.
“She’s a very dynamic multitasker,” Bryant said. “She’s a hard worker.”
Cassell is a work-study student at the Military & Veteran Services Center, which has about 20 employees. The office provides assistance — including managing GI Bill educational benefits and payments — for more than 1,800 UNLV students who are veterans or are veterans’ family members who are receiving benefits.
Getting plugged in with veterans groups
Cassell served in the Air Force from 1997 to 2000, Navy Reserve from 2003 to 2006, and Army from 2006 to 2015. She deployed twice to Iraq: 2007-08 and again in 2010-11.
She and her husband, a veteran who spent 22 years in the Army, moved to Las Vegas in 2015. Between them, they have six children in their family, ranging from 14 to 26 years old.
Cassell got involved with UNLV’s SVA chapter — called Rebel Vets Organization — in 2015. “At first, I wasn’t totally sure if I wanted to,” she said.
For the first three years, she attended an occasional event or meeting. But over time, she became more involved in the chapter and in other veterans groups.
Now, Cassell is junior vice commander of VFW Post 12101 and the SVA Nevada liaison to the VFW. And she was named the VFW Department of Nevada’s “Veteran of the Year” for 2018-19.
As a result of her experience with veterans groups — she’s a member of about five of them — her academic plans have changed. Cassell was initially planning to further her studies in psychology but opted for public administration instead.
“I figured that’s where I actually enjoyed the work,” she said — particularly, “advocating for our veterans.”
Her career goal is to work in legislation, policy and grantwriting for the VFW — or another veterans organization — in Washington, D.C.
For a couple of years, some of Cassell’s fellow VFW post members encouraged her to apply for the legislative fellowship, but she didn’t.
Then, she attended a SVA convention in January 2019 and the fellowship was a topic of conversation there. Her thought: “I guess it is legit,” she said. Cassell turned in her application just two hours before the deadline.
This year, 48 people — all VFW members — applied for the fellowship, Murray said.
As a fellow, it will be Cassell’s second trip to Washington, D.C. The first was when she was a teenager participating in a high school legislative fellowship program.
Once she returns home, she’ll work on trying to get a policy proposal implemented. Cassell will receive academic credit at UNLV for participating in the fellowship.
Cassell’s policy focus is helping veterans make the transition to civilian life.
“When the person leaves the military, that’s pretty much the end of communication with regards to if they have any issues with the transition,” Cassell said, but noted that doesn’t necessarily apply to medical care for veterans.
Cassell said she wants to see a systemwide process for checking on veterans at set intervals — such as three and six months — after their service ends to see how the transition is going and if they need help finding resources.
There are some efforts similar to this concept already in place, she said, but it’s a small segment of the military.
Checking in with veterans as they transition to civilian life could help reduce unemployment, homelessness and suicide rates among veterans, Cassell said, as well as “any kind of issues that do arise.”
Cassell said she’s interested in helping those who are transitioning out of their service at Nellis Air Force Base. After trying out the concept locally, “I want to see if we can go national with it.”
By the numbers
Here are a few statistics about veteran students at UNLV:
30: Average age
Four to eight years: Amount of time most served in the U.S armed forces
60 percent: Are married and have children
400: Approximate number who are women
350: Approximate number of veterans’ family members who receive educational benefits
Source: Ross Bryant with UNLV’s Military & Veteran Services Center