Second act

Imagine spending one day staring down death, or at least considering the possibility as real. Imagine doing so for weeks, months — or years. That is what American soldiers do — every day — and it is the memory that veterans live with every day thereafter. Some experience conflict close up; others see it from a distance, but the sacrifice they sign up for when they enlist in the military is unlike any other kind of commitment. This week, as we honor Veterans, we’d like to introduce you to one JMU student with a special passion for helping her fellow veterans. 

Chris Nelson ('15) on duty at Cedar Creek

Chris Nelson (’15) on duty at Cedar Creek

Chris Nelson (’15) knows the life of a soldier. As a retired Air Force  non-commissioned officer, she has lived the military life. For more than 20 years — 20 years and one day to be exact — Chris was an airborne missions systems specialist, providing inflight communication to, from, and among planes on various missions. One of her assignments was aboard AWACS — airborne warning and control planes — for NATO. She also flew on the National Air Operations Center, which she defines as “survivable mobile command center for the president, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the secretary of defense.”

While “I did not do combat,” she says, I flew on several combat sorties….My job was up in the air.”

That, however, did not preclude making sacrifices familiar to all veterans. She was often away from her husband and three children, and the family moved around a lot — Oklahoma, Germany, Nebraska, and finally Northern Virginia. “I did a lot of traveling, a lot of deploying around the world with small children. That was difficult,” she says.

Now she’s a full-time student — a second act in life. At 20, Chris thought college was beyond her. Neither of her parents went to college, and she says, candidly: “My parents couldn’t afford to send us to school.” But after being in the military, which, she says, encourages higher education, it became a goal. Chris is the first in her family to attend college.

She understands acutely that the transition from military life to civilian life is not always smooth. The rigors of military life, the restrictions, and all the rules and regulations are left behind. “I feel like I’ve been in a box for 20 years because there are very strict rules about how to look, what you can wear, and things you can do…..I had a security clearance, so I couldn’t go to certain places….,” she says.

Chris initially thought she would pursue a degree in homeland security. That made sense. After all, it’s what she had done for two decades. Still, she says, “I didn’t think it was the best fit for my family.”

Instead — with her husband’s encouragement — Chris enrolled at Lord Fairfax Community College with a different purpose: “I’m going to take a variety of classes to try and figure out what it is that I want to do.”

top_logo_new3-21What she discovered was an interest in history. “I fell in love with history of the Shenandoah Valley — the Civil War history,” she says. So when the opportunity arose to volunteer at nearby Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park, Chris jumped at the chance.

Cedar Creek, one of the National Park Service’s newest historic parks, near Strasburg, Va., adjoins Belle Grove, the historic home of President James Madison’s sister, Nellie Madison Hite.

Her volunteer job became a full-time position, which she holds today, while at the same time managing a family and the life of a full-time student. No doubt, 20 years of military discipline allows her to juggle all of that.

By the time she earned her associates degree and enrolled at JMU, she knew she wanted to study history. But history isn’t her only pursuit. Chris is double majoring in history and psychology.

While studying history is for fun, she says, studying psychology has a deeper and more personal meaning for Chris. “You’re in a war zone seeing things the average person just wouldn’t understand., and then you come back to the real world and you’re expected to function like nothing happened. I want to be there for those people.”

NPS-logo-color.jpgShe hopes to someday be able to help veterans, some who suffer from PTSD, as well women in abusive relationships.

When she first came to JMU, she sought out other veterans.

“I am not a social person,” she admits, “and I knew that if I was going to be attending school at JMU I would need to have a group of people that I could [identify with] — someone to talk to. So I searched and found out there was a student veterans group, and I contacted them. That was not the norm…. but I knew, because of my personal situation, that I needed to have that in place before I would be able to fit in.”

She found that fit in the Student Veteran Association. This year, Chris is serving as president and through SVA, she wants to provide a place where veterans can meet and associate but also find resources for navigating higher education. The military imbues self-reliance; as a result, she says, “most veterans do not like to ask for help.” That’s where SVA can help. And for Chris, that means advocating for fellow veterans.

“They’re just certain things that we (veterans) need that the average person just doesn’t understand. For example, for the GI Bill we get our tuition paid for — and there are different kinds of GI Bills…. They’ll pay for your tuition, but every class you take has to be part of your degree plan, and they won’t pay for any classes that are outside of your degree plan.”

“Also we have a basic allowance for housing …… You get paid a certain amount for the number of credit hours you take. If you can’t get into your required classes then that amount of money is being reduced because you get paid per credit, right? There are a lot of veterans who are going to school after they get out of the military and their family is living on that. Many of the veterans have wives and children…. Some … are living off of that money and — I think it’s about $1300. So if you can imagine a family trying to live on $1300 while the veterans is going to school. It’s really important to us to be able to get into the classes that we need or we’re not going to get paid…”

That’s where SVA can help and at JMU, that need extends wide. Chris says that the male/female ratio is 64/36. Almost half — 46 percent are 31 years old or older; 36 percent are 25-30; and 18 percent are between 18 and 20.

According to Bill Wilson, director of the Madison Institute and a member of the Veterans Scholars Task Force, 210 veterans and service members are currently enrolled at JMU. In addition, 370 dependents are using post 9/11 GI benefits.

The Veterans Scholars Task Force is a group of JMU faculty working to make JMU veteran friendly. As SVA president, Chris is also a member of the task force.

As advocates for veterans, Chris says, “SVA is here to do support these veterans, to try to give them a place where they can come and get information, where they can have camaraderie with other people who are in the same path as they are, have the same kind of life experience.”

Chris has important goals for SVA that she hopes to launch during her one-year term. “My objective is to move us forward. We are in a position now where we are meeting and having the camaraderie. That’s very important, but I want to move us even further forward to where we are doing things to actually help the veterans here.”

She wants SVA to be a resource for JMU veterans and their families. “We want to be the people they come to and ask questions. We may not have the answers, but we will know who to steer them to, to answer those questions, or if they just need to have someone to sit and talk to — there’s a bond between military members and just knowing the person sitting next to you has been through or understands what you’ve been through is a huge comfort.”

 

Looking for veterans resources at JMU? Check out these links:
https://www.jmu.edu/counselingctr/resources/for-veterans.shtml
https://www.facebook.com/JMUSVA

 

 

A presidential chat

John Douglas Hall, master interpreter of President James Madison chats with a young visitor to Montpelier. (Photo from Belle Grove)

John Douglas Hall, master interpreter of President James Madison, chats with a young visitor to Montpelier. (Photo from Belle Grove)

Last Saturday, during an event filled with dignity, ceremony and the best of history, President Alger and members of the JMU community traveled over the mountain to the home of President James Madison, Montpelier. It was a day where the past and the present met.

The occasion marked the 262th birthday of the fourth U.S. president and the man for whom our university is named. President Alger delivered a speech in which he called for a “Return to Madison” — a serious charge to recapture the kind of productive civil discourse that was so fundamental to President Madison’s success as a founding father. In a society often filled with rude and contentious interactions, it was a timely and important message.

In the audience that day  was a couple who is also working hard to keep alive the memory of James Madison. Michelle and Brett Darnell — an intrepid couple by anyone’s definition — have been working for the past several years to restore the historic birthplace of the fourth president, Belle Grove Plantation located in Port Conway, Va. (We’ve blogged about Belle Grove before.) Although neither Michelle nor Brett is a graduate of JMU, we would be hard pressed not to label them as part of the Madison community. Their work to restore and open the plantation adds yet another dimension  — and destination —  to the important story of James Madison.

Michelle and Brett Darnell

Michelle and Brett Darnell

I follow the Darnell’s Belle Grove Plantation blog and noticed Michelle had written a post about their day at Montpelier. The couple met President Alger and John Douglas Hall, the man who brings James Madison to life. They took in the ceremony, the history and the beauty of Montpelier. (Michelle’s blog also has lots of pictures from the event. See the link above.)

One observation in the blog was especially interesting. She wrote:

As we entered the room, we observed Mr. Madison sitting with a young girl on one side of the room deep in conversation. Her father was sitting across the aisle taping the conversation on his cell phone. Mrs. Madison was on the opposite side of the room also holding a conversation, with a young boy.

It was as if the past collided with the present, one of those rich moments when history becomes real and accessible. When this happens, our challenge is to learn everything we can and apply its lessons wisely, as President Alger suggests.

In addition to marking the day, the event signaled a strengthened association between JMU and Montpelier. The collaboration will benefit historians, students of all ages and anyone curious about history. It will happen in classrooms, over the Internet and wherever people — like Michelle and Brett — are sufficiently interested in history to gather and chat.

You can read more about the Montpelier event in a story by JMU’s Jim Heffernan (’96).

Uncle Jemmy’s cradle of change

In Eastern Virginia, sitting majestically along the banks of the Rappahannock River, is a beautiful old home that will open later this year as a bed and breakfast — Belle Grove Plantation Bed and Breakfast. (pictured below)

When I stumbled across it recently, I was puzzled. I’ve visited Belle Grove — but this house was not the Belle Grove near Middletown, Va., in the Northern Shenandoah Valley that  is a national historic landmark, a destination for history lovers and the home of President James Madison’s sister, Nelly Conway Madison Hite.

So I dug a little deeper.

It turns out, Virginia has two Belle Groves, one in the east and one in the west, and both have ties to the fourth United States president.

The river-seated Belle Grove Plantation to the east is the place where James Madison was born. (The original house of his birth no longer stands.) The future president’s mother, Eleanor “Nelly” Conway Madison was living in Mount Pleasant, Va., with her husband of a year as the birth of their first child neared. Anticipating the event, Nelly traveled to her mother’s home, Belle Grove, in Port Conway. At midnight on March 16, 1751, James Madison Jr. was born.

The Shenandoah Valley’s Belle Grove

The owners of the eastern Belle Grove, an intrepid couple interested in preserving the beautiful old house and its history, have posted much about its heritage on their blog.

The Valley’s Belle Grove was built by Major Isaac Hite and his wife Nelly Madison Hite, the sister of President James Madison. According to one website, this valley plantation was named as a remembrance of the earlier, eastern plantation where Nelly and “Jemmy’s” mother grew up.

The aftermath of July Fourth is a good time to reflect on the impact of Mr. Madison and the legacy of the two Belle Groves, one that cradled a future president and another he likely visited.

Often overlooked and sometimes underestimated, James Madison lived “Be the Change.” His life defined what it means to be involved, to have feet on the ground, to be in the game, to make a difference — all those cliches we use to describe what it takes to create change. If there is a better exemplar for a university to follow, I’m not sure who it is. James Madison set a high standard for change.

And there’s one more historical twist that might will surprise you. It turns out that Michelle Hite (’88), the editor of JMU’s award-winning Madison magazine, is a descendant of the Hite family, the original builders of Shenandoah Valley’s Belle Grove Plantation. The Madisons married into her family, she’ll tell you with a laugh. I’ll leave it to the genealogists to figure out the exact connection, but somewhere up in Michelle’s family tree there’s an “Uncle Jemmy” every Duke can claim.

He’s our Uncle Jemmy.

To learn more about Virginia’s two Belle Groves, click the embedded links above.

And to read more about President James Madison, check out Liberty and Learning: The Essential James Madison by JMU alumnus and Be the Changer, Phil Bigler (’74, ’75M) and Annie Lorsbach (’08M).

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