I stared up at what looked like a fraternity house perched on top of a hill. The Home Depot Foundation brought me to Columbus, Ohio for another Celebration of Service project, and this was different than any other so far. I was there to see an entire dorm get renovated for students who also happened to be U.S. Military Veterans. Unlike my trip to Stiggy’s Dogs or Clyde Kment’s home, this was the kind of place where Vets not only gathered, but lived in groups.
It was Veterans Day weekend, and the whole Buckeye campus seemed silent and hung over, missing this blue-sky Saturday morning. They would soon be wakened by chants coming from the sea of orange shirts gathering on the front lawn on their day off, with hammers and saws and other tools sure to make plenty of noise. Home Depot volunteers mean business …
Restoration of this three-story home was first begun by Jim Miller, son of Army Veteran and OSU grad Lawrence Miller. He purchased and renovated the home in 2009 as a dorm for Veterans in honor of his father. Home Depot stepped in on this Veterans Day weekend to add beautiful high-traffic floors, a bicycle shed, fresh paint, exterior landscaping and weather-proofing, and energy-efficient improvements throughout.
The fraternity houses I remember from my years at the University of California involved basement hovels, makeshift drywall partitions, and kitchens with scum from an era when disco was still king. They were “decorated” with campus memorabilia, Sports Illustrated swimsuit posters, and international (empty) beer bottle collections. One of my first college boyfriends lived in one of the nicer houses and he was one of the few guys who actually tried to keep his space neat. I remember laughing when, despite his immaculate room, the reek of party aftermath seeped through from his neighboring brothers’ rooms into his. We didn’t hang out there.
But as I stepped inside the OSU Veterans House, I could see right away that this wasn’t at all like a fraternity house. I’ve never been inside the kind of training barracks my husband has described, but there was something reminiscent of his stories here. The long family-style table was flanked by chairs which were neatly and evenly spaced, the kitchen counters were polished and clear, and the whole Home Depot crew was greeted by a student, early on a Saturday morning, in a tie. A tie.
It was Sgt. Todd Stewart, a drill sergeant enrolled in the Army’s “Green to Gold” program, aiming for a new career as an officer in the aviation community. He smiled out of one side of his mouth and looked like the kind of guy who had a story that he wouldn’t tell unless you asked. He told me about growing up so completely focused on being in the Army that on his 17th birthday he was granted emancipation, got a matching tattoo of a cross with his father, and signed his enlistment papers. Now he looked around his classes and realized he had been in charge of training people the same age as these students for the past three years. Training them for war. At 24, he said he felt like “the old guy.”
That notion garnered a chortle from Staff Sergeant Jim Stevens, a Veteran graduate student who moved 17 times in eight years, traveling from Bosnia to Albania to Afghanistan, then Germany and South Korea. He had an interesting mix of Active, Reserve, and now Guard duty that led to his interest in obtaining a Master’s Degree in Slavic Cultural Studies from OSU. We stood in the kitchen and talked politics for a long time before he told me any personal stories. Unlike Stewart, Stevens had been deployed to Afghanistan. I recognized a familiar stare at times when he spoke about his service, one I had seen in my husband’s eyes from time to time. He had a harder time relaxing, and an easier time giving me his opinions than the others.
I wondered what made this group of guys similar, despite their varied backgrounds and splitting futures. Staff Sergeant Ian Stitzlein, an Airman of 7 years now studying computer science and planning to work on the F-15 platform, explained. He said there was a certain way military minds thought, a particular cadence and language that was stronger than their differences. He’d spent two years living on campus elsewhere before he heard of the Veterans’ House, and was elated just to be a part of it all. He told me it was mostly because of the kinds of decisions being made there. Sure, they were talking about the big game, but they were also spending their time focusing on things that, in his estimation, seemed to matter more. They could all relax there, could all be understood, could focus on a future. Their futures.
That’s exactly the kind of sentiment that drove these volunteers from Home Depot to come work on their day off. They were building something they could be proud of and saying thank you all at once. Messages on doors from absent students praised the volunteers in advance, and brought smiles to the faces of the local TV camera crews visiting for interviews of the event.
As I prepared to leave that afternoon for my flight, Home Depot Foundation Representative Courtney Smith Approached me in the kitchen. She knew my husband served and she knew, based on an earlier conversation, that I had a battle coin competition going with him because I’d traveled to nearly as many military events that year for my writing as he had for duty. She smiled and reached out her hand, presenting me with a Home Depot military service coin. She had given many of them out that day, but saved one back for me. I accepted it with the knowledge that it was given to me not only because of my time spent as a Home Depot writer, but because of my experience as a military spouse.
It rode all the way across the country in my pocket,
warm and heavy,
reminding me of the power of words and the impact we can have by merely listening to someone to tell their story.