“One veteran at a time” is how Ross Bryant describes his approach to running UNLV’s Military and Veterans Services Center.
But as members of the thriving veteran community of 1,700 on campus attest, he brings far more to his job than just an ability to focus.
Yes, he has the leadership and doggedness you’d expect from a career Army soldier and officer. But it’s the intangibles — the way he puts people at ease, creates a family atmosphere and encourages them to pursue their dreams — that led to him being recognized as chapter adviser of the year at the national Student Veterans of America conference this month in Anaheim, California.
You need only look as far as UNLV film student Matt Shepard to get an idea of the kind of impact Bryant can have on former warriors forging a new way forward.
When they met at a Veterans Affairs meeting, Shepard was a homeless combat Marine veteran “dealing with a traumatic brain injury,” the result of a head-first fall from a moving vehicle in Iraq’s Anbar province in 2007.
Bryant, 55, who climbed the ranks of the armored cavalry from private to major before retiring in 2005, first worked with his staff to get Shepard’s G.I. Bill benefits started and help him move from a homeless shelter to a residence closer to UNLV.
Then he urged him to pursue his dream of a career in the film industry, even when that meant trying to slow down the energetic Shepard.
“He wanted to take 17 credit hours at the film school. I tried to talk him out of it because I know he had a traumatic brain injury but he refused to drop his classes because he knew he had paranoia and wanted to be busy from sun-up to sun-down,” recalled Bryant.
Shepard, 33, said the support he received from Bryant and Bruno Moya, president of campus SVA chapter Rebel Vets, played a huge role by enabling him to focus on “getting my brain to work.”
“I’m not going to let them down,” he adds, saying his goal is to earn a master’s degree.
‘A MARINE SCHOLAR’
Bryant characteristically plays down his role in Shepard’s remarkable rebound.
“After his first semester, he pulled own a 3.68 GPA,” he said. “He went back to see his family in Kansas City, not as a homeless Marine but as a Marine scholar who’s on the dean’s list.”
Bryant has overseen a tremendous spurt of growth in the veteran student population at UNLV since coming aboard.
When the post-9/11 G.I. Bill took effect in 2009, there were just 290 certified veterans attending UNLV, only 68 percent of whom graduated.
Now, with a veterans center that opened in 2012 and a campus VA satellite office next door for fast benefits processing, the university is churning out veteran grads, more than 800 since 2013. Currently the university has 1,231 veterans receiving G.I. Bill benefits, and an overall population of 1,780, including 317 women, Bryant said.
Bryant’s desire to help veterans embark on new lives may have something to do with years he spent serving in Europe, where he witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall and saw young men and women clamboring over the debris to collect 40 German marks and start from scratch.
Army veteran Randy Dexter of Henderson, who grapples with the bitter experiences of being a medic in Iraq during heavy fighting in 2005, said Bryant transformed him from being “one of those veterans who didn’t want anything to do with anything veteran-related,” to part of the flock at UNLV.
“He took me in his office and within a few minutes I knew choosing to come to UNLV was probably the best choice I’ve made in my life,” he said. “… He was ‘Army.’ He understood what I was going through. He accepted my service dog as well,” he said of his canine companion, “Captain.”
Bryant also is “very proud” that UNLV is one of the just three U.S. universities with a women’s chapter of the student veterans association, the Rebel Women Vets. And he’s great at “being on the ground in the weeds with the rest of the students,” said veteran Rachel Frost.
“Especially being a female it can be a little bit harder to have that good, solid steady mentorship,” said Frost, 31, who served in the Air Force and now is pursuing international business coursework along with a language specialty, Chinese Mandarin.
“He probably spends most of his time with students, and then he juggles all of the duties of the director, which is an amazing attribute. … That’s what makes being a student veteran-here feel like a family,” she said.
Contact Keith Rogers at email@example.com or 702-383-0308. Find him on Twitter: @KeithRogers2.