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:



Essential history

8612245488_b7de7cd9ea_bHistory gives us a perspective on change that few other disciplines can. Looking back we can see where we were 10, 20, 100 years ago. If we examine how our lives were — or how others lived — then we have a distinct measure of how far we’ve come and how much things have changed. Today’s college students don’t know a world without computers or cell phones. In much the same way, their parents don’t remember life without  television. And what modern child could imagine riding a horse to school or thinking that store-bought bread or clothing wasn’t the norm but a novelty?

Change sometimes feels threatening or unwanted, and often those fears, even when unfounded, are very real. Only when we look backwards can we sometimes see the value in change. Who, for instance, would willingly return to days before mass electrification? Yet when kerosene lamps ruled, for many homeowners the prospect of electrical current running through the walls of their houses was truly frightening.

Some people can envision the future well enough to embrace it without reservations; people like the Wright Brothers or George Westinghouse. But for the rest of us, change often requires the perspective of time. If looking into the past offers valuable lessons, then it would follow that preserving that past becomes an important part of establishing change.

The valley has plenty of organizations that are doing exactly that: preserving history. Rosemarie Palmer, JMU faculty emeriti, works diligently with the Harrisonburg Rockingham Historical Society. In fact, I got an email from Rosemarie this week with a schedule of upcoming events.

This morning’s Daily News-Record reported on the continuing effort of  Clerk of the Circuit Court for Harrisonburg and Rockingham County Chaz Evans-Haywood (’96) to restore and digitize the county’s records. When Chaz took over the office a number of years ago, thousands of documents and record books were stored haphazardly. Going back as far as the 1700s, they were degrading and in disarray. Through his efforts and those of his staff, the history of Rockingham County is being taken care of, and perhaps as importantly, is being made available to the public.

Anyone who visits the third floor of Harrisonburg’s Public Safety Building on Main Street will find another adventure in local history. The Harrisonburg Fire Department Museum is a walk back through a century of one essential civic function for the community. To see how firefighters battled blazes before the advent of walkie-talkies is to discover they used “bugles” to communicate during a fire event. It is fun, interesting, welcoming, and best of all it is history well done.  Harrisonburg’s longtime Fire Chief Larry Shifflett is the instigator who has collected and catalogued an amazing collection from old Harrisonburg: photos, memorabilia, equipment and displays. And Wanda Willis, fire prevention specialist and safe kids coordinator, is an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide.

I can’t help but share one small tidbit of Madison history that seems especially appropriate. Accordingly to L. Sean Crowley’s history of Madison:

When the good news was received [that the General Assembly had approved a school at Harrisonburg], the entire News­Register building was illuminated in a blaze of lights and the town’s fire whistle broke the night silence with a prolonged blast, waking many residents and prompting dozens of inquiring calls to the central telephone office. 

History is too often discarded, trashed and forgotten, but individuals like Larry and Chaz and Rosemarie are making sure we have the opportunity to stand back and look back, giving us the all important understanding that change which moves of forward is change we should embrace.

If you have a child or an interest in history, do not miss the Firefighters Museum!  It’s located in the the Public Safety Building on Main Street.

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).

Tamping down the animus

If you’re a Facebook regular, you’ve no doubt been treated to a barrage of politically charged pictures, quotes and opinions. Frankly, I’ve been stunned at some of the things people have posted. Some are junkyard-dog-mean, vulgar and irresponsible. Despite calls from both sides to tone down the rhetoric, the opposite seems to be happening. In fact, the omnipresence of social media seems to have liberated our nastiest sides and ratcheted up the acrimony.

But has it really?

In an interesting post earlier this month, William E. White of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, debunked the modern consensus that the current political firestorm is worse than any other. He writes: “Partisanship and rancor are not new. We have not fallen from some republican ideal into a new style of debauchery.”

If we’re such smart Americans, then why don’t we know this?

The reason, White writes, is that “Americans are a terribly ahistorical people.” We really don’t know our history. White explains further:

That does not justify the way modern politicians attack each other, but if we provided a decent American history and civics education in this country, twenty-first-century American citizens would at least recognize the historical roots of our current situation. Most, however, are woefully ignorant about our past and the way in which elections are conducted. Most don’t understand that the electoral process has changed dramatically over time. Nor do they understand that most voting requirements are established by states, not the federal government. People are amazed to learn that, until 1913 and the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment, most U.S. senators were appointed by state legislatures, not elected by the people.

White goes on to say, “If we believe there is too much rancor in politics, the people must demand a change. We are the American people and American history is the only way for us to understand the responsibilities we hold for insuring the future of the republic.”

One JMU alum is taking a step toward the positive change that White suggests. Patrick Spero (’00), assistant professor of history and leadership studies at Williams College, teaches an experimental course on the American presidency “using the latest technology to create campaign ads for presidential elections from Washington to Lincoln,” he explains.

Employing all the advantages of modern technology, Spero’s students recreate earlier political campaigns that are historically accurate. Quite a challenge certainly, but what an interesting and enlightening one.

So if we are going to change the rhetoric, the tenor and tone of our political discourse, maybe we should start by knowing what we’re talking about, like Spero’s students. Maybe understanding history will give us the knowledge and context to change things. Maybe it will give us more thoughtful avenues of discussion and maybe, just maybe, it will tamp down the animus. It’s worth a shot.

I’m not sure I’ve seen a timelier or more interesting opportunity in this election cycle to be the change.

To learn more:

Colonial Williamsburg is offering an electronic field trip about the election of 1800, Gift to the Nation.

To learn much more about Patrick Spero’s work and his class, click on the links below:

To read the entire text of the blog, which appeared in the Aug. 14, 2012, Huffington Post, click the embedded link.

Elizabeth Burns (’04)

University at Buffalo, The State University of...

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The life you change might be your own.

I received a nomination from Chris Arndt, JMU professor of history. Chris nominated a former student, Elizabeth Burns, who is currently a graduate student at the University of Buffalo. What makes Elizabeth so special is that she is legally blind and since 1993 has been unable to read. But that’s only the beginning of Elizabeth’s inspirational story. Widowed with three children to rear, Burns enrolled at JMU and, in the process, changed her life.

Interviewed for the history department’s newsletter after her graduation in 2004, Elizabeth said: “He (her husband) had been dead only two months when I came to JMU.  I felt shaky, wondered how I had brought myself up the stairs, wondered how I would fit into this place, James Madison University.  By doing one thing each day that furthered my enrollment and learning the campus, I put the energy of my sadness into creating some kind of new life, a life that would begin with the acquisition of a college degree.”

Overcoming blindness, learning Braille, processing the grief of losing her husband while tackling the critical task of raising three sons alone, Elizabeth graduated from JMU with distinction in 2004 with a B.A. in history. Currently, she is a doctoral student in history at the University of Buffalo. Despite obstacles that to some — to most of us — would seem daunting, she stepped out and changed her life. Elizabeth Burns is an outstanding example of positive change.

Such is the spirit of JMU.  In the next few weeks, I’ll post on a staff member who holds the same philosophy — that one cannot change the world without changing oneself in the process.

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