A Veterans’ Advocate Proves That Leadership Ain’t Rocket Science

Posted 06.12.2012

On the way home from visiting a U.S. Department of Defense client organization today, I heard a story on NPR that I have to share with you.  It’s about how a community college counselor named Catherine Morris took it upon herself to help veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan get the educational benefits they’ve earned.

As the wars have wound down, more than 500,000 vets have left the service to go to college.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that because of budget cuts in higher education and a lack of awareness on the part of administrators, most veterans aren’t getting the support they need to make the transition to campus.

As a retired Marine herself, Morris decided to change the game at Sierra Community College in California.  Two years ago, she asked the president for a budget to support the 800-plus vets on campus and was told that fiscal constraints wouldn’t allow it.  She kept at it. When Willie Duncan took over as president, he told her that there was even less money than before, but he would offer moral support.

With the help of some colleagues and students, Morris established a Veterans’ Resource Center on campus by cutting a deal with the athletic department to share a small room that they used as a study area in the library.  She set up some computers, a small fridge stocked with snacks and a relaxation room for the vets.  She convinced Duncan to let her provide academic counseling to the vets on close to a full-time basis.  She made arrangements with the VA for two counselors to come to campus for weekly therapy sessions.

As Daniel Zwerdling reports in the NPR story, Morris is changing and saving lives through her initiative.  One veteran, James Riemers, told Zwerdling that he had to turn off part of his brain to cope with the trauma of recovering the remains of five comrades who were killed in an IED explosion in Iraq.  When he came to Sierra to study mechanical engineering, he struggled with turning his brain back on.  Thanks to Morris and her support, he’s done so and made two A’s and two B’s in his first semester at college.

Through her actions, Morris shows us that great leadership ain’t rocket science.  It’s as simple as putting yourself in the shoes of people who need help, figuring out how you can meet their needs and sticking with your commitment to help when people tell you it can’t be done.

Thank God for Catherine Morris.  May we all follow her lead.