Keri Wilcox’s marching orders came from her husband, Tom, the night before he died. “I want you to promise me you will continue to fight for my brothers and sisters as you have for me, your son and your brother.” Tom, a U.S. Army veteran, died of myelodysplasia syndrome (MDS), which has been linked to Agent Orange, an herbicide and defoliant used during the Vietnam War.
After her husband passed, Wilcox said she became an introvert. “I lost my drive. I started to wonder, who am I? What is my purpose?” Wilcox eventually went through training that helped her discover who she is at the core level and her purpose in life—to fulfill her marching orders.
One day, Wilcox wants to establish a non-profit organization to help “bring our troops all the way home.” She envisions an automotive restoration organization that would help veterans with education, on-the-job training and emotional intelligence training. The goal would be to assist veterans in their transition back into civilian life, helping them enter the workforce with a strong sense of accomplishment and purpose.
In the spring 2016 semester Wilcox joined the Student Veterans of America chapter on the Northwest Campus. She now serves as the chapter president. At the time she joined, the chapter had approximately 65 members on the roll. By fall 2016, the number of chapter members had almost tripled.
“The Student Veterans Club is flourishing under her leadership,” said Ryan Kelly, program coordinator for the Veterans Learning Community.
I believe Keri’s commitment and energy are what the Student Veterans Club needs to establish a strong foundation to build a solid organization and support system for military-connected students on the Northwest Campus.
In June 2016, Wilcox was one of the speakers at the Veterans Support Network Discussion at the South Campus, the purpose of which was to connect TCC with area partners as resources to military-connected students. Wilcox’s speech focused not only on her journey through her husband’s illness, but also on the need to support military-connected students as a whole.
Following her speech, partners lined up at her table to offer their resources to TCC students. Wilcox built relationships with the partners and now has numerous resources such as The Mission Continues, the Cohen Veterans Network and Stay the Course, available to military-connected students in need.
Lisa Schellenberg, a U.S. Army Reserves veteran and fellow NW SVA chapter officer, sings Wilcox’s praises. “Keri is very dedicated to learning everything there is to know about the available resources that benefit military veterans and their families. She works tirelessly, spending her nights and weekends attending conferences, meetings and visiting area resource centers.”
Every Tuesday, the chapter offers Breakfast Break for military-connected students on the Northwest Campus. It provides opportunities for area partners to meet with the students.
It was during one of the Breakfast Breaks that Northwest Campus student Jennifer Milewski learned about the NW SVA chapter. Milewski, whose husband serves in the U.S. Marine Corps, originally sought out the organization for assistance for her spouse, who is considering attending school. She saw the work Wilcox was doing on behalf of military connected students and their families and wanted to help. “I saw Keri’s passion and that she is doing great things for veterans,” she said. Milewski now serves as vice president and secretary of the chapter.
Nick Murrow, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, also met Wilcox at one of the Breakfast Breaks. “I had a lot going on in life and didn’t want to ask anyone for help. We spoke for a while and she got me in touch with the right people for assistance,” he said. “Now I am an officer with the SVA and VFW, trying to help people that are facing the challenges I was dealing with. Keri makes a positive impact on everyone and everything she is involved with.”
The chapter is making a difference in military-connected students’ lives. Wilcox often hears comments such as, “My family got fed,” or “Thank you for finding that resource. I didn’t have to sleep in my car last night,” and “I can continue school.” Some have told her, “I’ve never told anyone this before, but you seem like you understand.”
Wilcox understands all too well. Her husband struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They separated for a time because of it. Tom went through experimental therapy, which helped. What came out of the therapy is that he did not feel worthy to be a father because of some of the things they had to do in Vietnam.
“I’ve heard similar stories from veterans who don’t feel worthy,” Wilcox said. One veteran shared with her stories about children playing outside one moment and getting shot down the next. “So veterans lose their self-worth. They have a trunk-load of shame and horror. Flashbacks are common.”
Another struggle facing military-connected students and their families is finances. While Wilcox receives benefits from the Veterans Administration, they do not adequately meet her family’s needs. As a result, she and her family have had to scale back on everything.
Finances also were an issue during Wilcox’s husband’s treatment at the VA Medical Center in San Antonio. When the VA Medical Center said there was nothing more they could do for Tom, they suggested treatment at M.D. Anderson in Houston. Wilcox had not worked for a year and was attending school before her husband got sick, so there was no additional insurance to cover treatment.
Although Wilcox was ready to sell their house, cars and whatever it took for him to be treated, her husband said “no.” He told her, “We are going to be hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. What kind of life are we going to live? Just let the Lord take me home and you keep fighting.”
Through tears, Wilcox said, “So I sacrificed. He sacrificed. That’s why I fight.”
What Wilcox wants military-connected potential students to know is that TCC is here for them.
Every campus has a SVA chapter. They are fighting for your benefits and for you. I am that person that stands in the gap. If you don’t know who to ask, I will find that person and ask. Get connected. Stay connected! Because we are here.