PASCO, Wash. — An Army dress uniform hangs in Jason Schlegel’s office at Columbia Basin College in Pasco.
The uniform belonged to Schlegel’s grandfather, who served during the Vietnam War and later retired after a career in the service.
The same career he loved led to his death, Schlegel said. He died after multiple battles with cancer caused by Agent Orange.
The story of Schlegel’s grandfather is the same for many service members returning to civilian life.
“War isn’t just in the combat zone or the area of conflict,” he said. “It literally travels with people a lifetime.”
Schlegel, 37, veterans’ services director at Columbia Basin College, is one of nine people and organizations recognized in 2016 for their service to veterans by the state Department of Veterans Affairs and the Governor’s Veterans Affairs Advisory Committee.
An Army veteran himself, Schlegel received the award November 5 at Auburn’s annual Veterans Day parade.
Before the college created the Veterans Education and Transition Services center in 2013, Schlegel said vets had a small lounge without any consistent services available. Now they have access to computer stations, a clinical psychologist and other services.
“The college worked really hard to get a dedicated space,” he said. “We try to meet the needs of all vets … It’s intended to be a welcoming place.”
Schlegel proposed the idea when he worked as the director of student success and retention. At the time, a growing movement was forming to support veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. College officials formed a veteran’s success committee, which led to the creation of the center.
President Rich Cummins said Schlegel’s counseling and advising background make him a good fit for the role of director.
“The vets that we’re able to serve are men and women who come from all kinds of military experience,” Cummins said. “In a lot of ways, the combined work of Jason and the psychologist has been critical to a lot of people’s lives.”
The center allows veterans a safe place to heal. The most recent wars created a different set of problems, as military personnel served multiple deployments on multiple fronts, Schlegel said.
“I’m not sure that was ever factored in when we rushed to war,” he said. “We’re here to support people in their success and help people realize their readiness in their success.”
Schlegel finds meaning and purpose in helping veterans. The work allows him to combine his love of higher education and his appreciation for service members.
The people nominating Schlegel noted the director’s work on behalf of veterans at the college.
“Jason has distinguished himself as a key advocate for veterans and their families in Benton and Franklin counties,” the nominators wrote. “He works tirelessly to support veterans and their families and their unique needs, including employment, housing and mental health services.”
Along with his work at the center, Schlegel also is a board member for the Veterans Opportunity Center and led a campaign to raise $85,000 to build a monument on the campus to honor veterans.
He said winning the award is nice.
“I’m impressed that they even have awards like this. This is great,” he said.
Looking back at his grandfather’s generation, Schlegel hopes the nation shows more empathy for veterans. He will continue working to make life easier for former service members.