In the late 2000s, UNLV officials were alarmed by news reports of a million military veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and enrolling in colleges and universities that were largely unprepared to welcome former combatants. In 2012, university leadership tapped Ross Bryant, a retired 24-year Army veteran and former UNLV Army ROTC professor, to start the Military and Veteran Services Center.
The timing was good for Bryant. After six years of developing see-something-say-something training programs for Strip employees at the Institute for Security Studies, he lost his job when Nevada lost its Homeland Security funding. He’d landed a position working on community security projects at UNLV’s Harry Reid Center, but it was temporary, and anyway, Bryant likes helping people more than managing projects.
“I love this campus. I love this school,” he says. “Things are far from perfect. There’s a lot of turmoil going on on college campuses right now, including here. I don’t focus on any of that. I focus on the folks coming here.”
Bryant recalls two of the first people to walk through the center’s door: a husband and wife, both former Airborne sergeants, and Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. The husband had been medically discharged, against his wishes, due to a severe back and leg injury, and walked with a cane. The wife had left the Army after her second tour in Afghanistan. They had a 2-year-old daughter, and the whole family had driven from Alaska to Las Vegas, drawn by sunny weather and the promise of an education at UNLV.
“Unfortunately, Nevada didn’t have its laws changed to take this influx of vets from the war,” Bryant says. “If you came to school here and you didn’t go to high school in Nevada — this is a public state school — you ended up paying out-of-state tuition, (which was) $7,000. … Nothing says, ‘Welcome home’ like, ‘You owe us 14 grand.’”
Over the ensuing years, Bryant and representatives of student organization Rebel Vets have worked with state and federal legislators to get the law changed. Today, veterans from anywhere in the U.S. can use their GI Bill benefits to go to any Nevada college or university, within five years of being discharged, without paying out-of-state tuition.
Meanwhile, the center carries on its day-to-day work of helping veterans adapt to student life. It offers an orientation, academic mentoring, peer-to-peer support and other services that help vets successfully achieve what Bryant calls a “transition of purpose” — figuring out their mission in life after the military.
The center started with 300 veterans and now has 1,800, about 5 percent of UNLV’s total student population; 317 are women. This semester, 341 veterans enrolled, and nearly half went through the center’s orientation. Bryant credits Rebel Vets’ hard work for the widespread awareness. But Student Vets of America, the national organization, believes that Bryant himself has something to do with the center’s success. In January, it picked him from among its 1,400 national chapters as Adviser of the Year.