PITTSFIELD -- Some 40 years ago, when United States military troops began returning home from the Vietnam War, stories came out across the country on how they were shunned, shamed and made to feel unwelcome in their communities.
Many vets had trouble finding jobs, going back to school and smoothly transitioning into civilian life.
This week, dozens of Berkshire County organizations are working together and taking action to show that never again will someone who has served their county ever have to experience such disregard.
n From 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. today, a Veterans Expo, organized by multiple agencies for military personnel, veterans and their families, will be held at the Crowne Plaza.
n At 2 p.m. Saturday, the city's Here at Home Committee will welcome the return of U.S. Army Capt. Branden T. Farley from Afghanistan.
n On Tuesday, BerkshireWorks career center will hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony for its own veterans resource room.
Approximately 80 members of Berkshire Community College, state and local officials, veterans and community members turned out on Thursday for a ceremony to herald the opening of the college's new Veterans Lounge, as well as the BerkshireWorks project.
The lounge was a project proposed by student veterans.
"Four years ago, this lounge was their vision and dream," said Beth Wallace, BCC's director of student engagement.
BCC President Ellen Kennedy, John Barrett III and David Nash, director and disabled veterans outreach program coordinator, respectively, of BerkshireWorks, all spoke of working together on education and workforce development programs to strengthen relationships with and services for returning troops and military veterans.
PHOTO GALLERY | Veterans Lounge opens at BCC in Pittsfield
After a program of other speakers, including Massachusetts Secretary of Veterans' Services Coleman Nee, Wallace and BCC Student Veterans Alliance member and U.S. Navy veteran Lisa Catullo together cut the ribbon to the new space.
"This really means a lot to us," Catullo said. Both she and state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier attributed the project to U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Edward S. Passetto, a veteran and Berkshire Community College student who died in May after a long struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression. The 28-year-old Berkshire native had served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Having this space here now, you can't not think about Ed," Catullo said. "This was one of his hopes and dreams for veterans."
The modest-sized lounge offers a new couch and chairs, a clean desk and computer. There are photos and prints hung on the walls showing military men and women of past and present. There's a coffee maker inside, and a basket of snacks near the door. A magazine rack contains literature ranging from "Rolling Stone" to "Veterans' Healthy Living." Tacked to a bulletin board is a wall-sized "Tours of Duty" map, on which visitors are invited to push a pin to mark a place where they served.
Visually no more than a living room, the lounge is symbolically something students have yearned for -- a special place on the college campus where their privacy can be respected and they can make themselves at home.
"To see this being done now is fantastic," said John Harding, a Marine Corps and Vietnam veteran. "It's what they need."
Along with the new space comes grant funding from the Massachusetts Community Colleges & Workforce Development Transformation Agenda to hire John S. Herrera, a retired U.S. Coast Guard veteran and former BCC student, as the new, part-time staff assistant for veterans services.
He said there are between 65 and 85 known student veterans enrolled in campus courses at any given time.
While welcoming people to the lounge Thursday afternoon, Herrera engaged with two student veterans -- Robert Welz, a Marine Corps veteran of Lanesborough, and Michael Ferguson, an Army veteran of Pittsfield. Both young men enrolled in classes in the past two years. Welz aspires to be an environmental police officer, while Ferguson would like to become a biochemical research specialist.
Their conversation with Herrera ranged from how they wished veterans weren't asked by civilians the incensing question of "How many people did you kill?" to how to apply for more college financial aid.
Herrera said he hopes to continue to lend his ear to student veterans and to help them reach their goals, from getting veterans benefits to getting a degree to better connecting with their community.
"The challenge for veterans is being accepted, especially vets coming back from a combat situation, but they want to come to college and hit the ground anew, as everyone else. I'm here to help garner trust, and to help them do that," Herrera said.
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