Cape Fear Community College presents the annual Veteran's Day Ceremony this Friday, November 9. The event is designed to bring the community together to honor local veterans. The Ceremony begins at 10:00am at Tabitha Courtyard near the corner of Walnut & Front Streets in downtown Wilmington.
Ray Charfauros is the Director of Veteran Services at Cape Fear Community College. Listen above and read our extended conversation below.
Gina: You were active in the marines?
Ray: Yes, I was active in the Marine Corps for seven years. Stationed first in marine barracks, Washington DC for two of those years and then five years down at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
Gina: What is Veterans Services at Cape Fear Community College? What does that department do?
Ray: So our department, really it's just myself and seven other work studies, that are veterans themselves. So we try to foster an environment where our transitioning veterans and their family members and our active duty military who want to attend Cape Fear, kind of get their foundation set and education before they move on to the universities. For some that's just the one stop shop for them because of the plethora of technical skills that are needed in our nation today versus bachelor's degrees. So what that department does is we help the veterans and family members transition. So we have a space, it's called the Bob Philpott Veteran Center, and it has computers, it has lounge. My office is always open for our veterans and their family members to come in, ask questions, and so that we make sure that they have a smooth transition from military life. Like yourself, you saying you were family members, so even the child themselves who come in, they're like, "I don't know what to do." Well, don't worry we got this. All your worries? Just leave them at the door because we're going to help you transition.
Gina: How many veterans go through Cape Fear Community College?
Ray: So, our numbers right now, we have 530 just this semester. So fall semester we have 530, which is a significant number because that's 530 lives. 530 family members who are not from Wilmington in general. They're from all over the United States. So we got to think about culture. We've got to think about either they're a family member or veteran themselves, what kind of trauma that they've been through. So really that number is, it's a big number, but it means so much more than just that.
Gina: Do you see any particular types of problems or any particular difficulties that you have to deal with, with students who are veterans coming in?
Ray: With specifically the students who are veterans, one of the difficulties obviously is transitioning. So you're going from one culture to another culture and you're going from a military lifestyle to a civilian lifestyle and your first stop is college, because automatically a lot of the service members, both men and women who get out of the military, they think that college is the first step, which is a good foundation, right? So they come in, they're a little flustered, they're little anxiety-ridden and maybe they just don't know the process, but that's where we come in. So one of the problems we're seeing and/or issues per se that we're seeing is a heightened anxiety and unknowing-ness. In the military, we call that the fog of war--not knowing what's ahead of us, but we're just gonna attack no matter what and kind of figure out what we need to do in order to accomplish the mission. So with that said, culture shock is a big thing. Huge, huge, huge thing. What I express to my veterans and their family members is that Cape Fear, they really, I'm not just saying this because I work there, I honestly can say that we are a military friendly school. The instructors, we have, I want to say over 20 veteran instructors who are teaching at Cape Fear that understand the veteran lifestyle. We have leadership from top to bottom, from board of trustees down below who are veterans themselves. So they understand that. And so I expressed to my veterans that, hey, don't worry, our instructors and our leadership are veterans themselves and if they're not, they have been around for so many years to a point where they understand, "okay, that's a veteran, we will accommodate as much as needed and ensure that they have the best success through school." So that's one of the biggest one, is the culture shock.
Gina: Let's say you're going to address some teachers to tell them how to make it easy for the veterans, how to help veterans be successful. What would you say? What kinds of things would you point out to them?
Ray: The first thing I would say to someone who doesn't know the veteran community at all is we are there to learn. Literally. We want to know about you. We just don't want to, you know, have a conversation. Like, we want to know who you are. We want to, for instance, a lot of the instructors who are new and whenever I'm on the search committees, I asked them, you know, have they had been involved in any veteran communities at all? And if they haven't, the number one advice I can give anyone who comes into interaction with the veteran or a veteran's family members is just to listen. Right? And in the general society, we want people to listen anyways, right? So, the number one thing is just to listen and provide that support because one thing about the veterans, if they seek you and for advice and/or if you become, you know, a partner with them, a partnership with them, they're going to have your back from now on. So if you form that partnership, that relationship, then they're going to have your back from now on. I mean you can call them at one in the morning and be like, "Hey, I'm in trouble. Okay, where can I find you," type thing
Gina: And what is your advice that you give the veterans in terms of walking into the situation of the community college and making that transition?
Ray: So my advice to many of my veterans that are transitioning is to be patient. To know that you're not going to know everything and it's okay. And I reverted back to their basic training, right? So their school. It's like, you are here. It's okay. It's a new transition. It's a new environment, it's a new culture, but our Veteran Center is there for you. So you can come in and speak with your peer and/or me. Just know that you can run into some different roadblocks and if you can't handle yourself, I mean give me a call. They have my cell, they have contacts in the center. So I just tell them, be patient and they're used to that. I mean, all the veterans who are listening, all the veterans from the past, I mean, it doesn't matter what era you're from, you know the standard terminology: hurry up and wait. So here we are. We got everything done. We went through the checklist. We're in school, we've been accepted. Yay. But now we just have to wait. So it's a waiting game and everyone's familiar with a waiting game. So I tell them, be patient and be kind.
Gina: Ray, tell me about the Veteran's Day ceremony that's on November 9th.
Ray: It's a phenomenal ceremony for the community, Wilmington, to come and show their support to veterans. So this is not a college-specific event. We invite the veterans from the community to come show their support because these men and women, they want your support and for you to show up on that day to show your support, to let them know that you care as a community is tremendous. I had a veteran of mine, she served for five years and she had one of the toughest jobs--air traffic controller. You know, I mean, you're up there in those towers and it's one of the stressful jobs in America and she spent five years doing that and she's going to be there to tell her story. And, so really the ceremony is for the veterans, but the ceremony is also for the community to come together to learn about the veterans, a few veterans who are going to be speaking. I mean we have, our commissioners are going to show up. We have four commissioners who have shown their support, the other commissioners weren't able to make it due to schedule events, to the sheriff's office coming and just showing their support because they have a plethora of veterans that serve our community. So firefighters from Wilmington and the county, they're going to show up there. I mean, it's just going to be a great event for community. But the number one aspect I want to get through is there's still a war going on and people don't realize that. I had a buddy, Cody Andrews, who just came back from Afghanistan, and he was in a reserve unit. He didn't think really much was going to go on, but they actually got into a couple of firefights, which is, you know, here in America we're safe, we're free. We don't really value that. But to see him come home, and to know that he's home is amazing, but also to know that there's still a war going on and they're still men and women out there sacrificing their time so that we can have our freedoms that we have today. That's pretty much the message I want to push across on our day, Veterans Day, because there's still people at war. But there's also still people here in the United States who are veterans, whether they've been at war or not. It's a whole circle because we have the supporting elements that support those individuals who go to war. So everyone has a hand, both men and women, and we really just want them and the community to show their support for our veterans.
Gina: Veterans need the support in a lot of different ways, the Veterans Affairs and the VA clinics and things like that, people need to be aware of.
Ray: Definitely. And one thing about our VA clinic here in Wilmington, they're actually pretty solid. We have a pretty solid VA healthcare center here. All the staff members down there, you know, the VA gets a bad rep but they're implementing systems. For instance, my health event, which is secure messaging program. If the veterans use that secure messaging program, the VA will answer you 48 to 72 hours to get your care scheduled. Obviously we have 17,000 veterans in new Hanover County and a population of 220,000 citizens of new Hanover county, 17,000 of that as veterans. And we have a small VA center that obviously we're having issues with, structural issues with. But that's a lot of veterans in our community, you know.
I think the biggest thing is what the veteran community is dealing with suicides. That's one of the biggest issues that we're having within the veteran community. The whole, you know, 20 to 22 a day. That's a major issue in our society. So one thing, one question I always get is how do we combat that? How do we prevent someone from committing suicide, prevent a veteran from committing suicide? Well, there's a lot of resources out there for the veteran community and for those who are listening, there's the hotline where you can call and get help and there's the counselor on the net ready for them to answer the call. So one thing I want to kind of get across is our Veteran's Center at Cape Fear, has been a vital asset to the college and the community. It's funny cause I had a Vietnam veteran who just came in and was like, "I just want to hang out with veterans." I was like, "Well okay, well have a seat." He was like, "well, I've also been working on some writing material that I want to publish before I die." And I was like, Oh man, that's tough. Right? Vietnam veteran who got spat on and came back and he was an African American as well on top of that, come back from Vietnam. He just wanted to write his story and I literally sat there a week with him just to let him write his story. And he asked me advice like, "Hey, does this sound good?" I was like, "It's great!" You know, like, just to have that center there for both the community and the college in general, that center saves lives. I'm not saying I save their life, I'm saying the center in general with the peer to peer mentorship with the students. Whenever someone walks in, they're being greeted, like, "hey man, how's it going?" Or "Hey, how can we help you?" You know, that changes the narrative. And then a couple of weeks ago, you know, I had a veteran who was dealing with a lot because of the storm, because of just life in general, and he was in the invasion to Iraq, right? So years and years ago. This veteran called one day and was like, "Hey, I'm about to commit it, I'm about to, I'm about to end this. I don't want to live anymore." I was like, "Well, I'm sorry you can't because we have pizza come in at 12, so I need you to get down here right now because everyone's waiting on you so that we can start eating," and you know, just like that lingo, how I can read off being a veteran myself. I was like, "You can't do that because we have a pizza. So I need you to come down to the Veteran Center so we can start eating." So he laughed and he actually came down and you know, our center provides that. It provides a new zone or new area where just anyone in the veteran community can come to and kind of relax and just kick off their boots, if you will, and destress or decompress from, you know, all the stimuli that's out there.
Gina: What drew you to do this work?
Ray: When I got out of the military, I didn't want to get out. But it was either I couldn't stay in the profession I was in, I had to move to a different profession. So I was an infantry men, but they were like, "okay, well you can go to this non-infantry unit and continue on your service," but issue is, you know, if I'm not going to be a warfighter then I can just get out. Right. So after I was discharged from the Marine Corps, I needed to find a purpose. I didn't know what that purpose was. And being a introspective person, I tried to figure out and read and read and read. So I was like, you know what, I'm going to help other veterans out, I'm going to study psychology, become a therapist. Well, my internship with a social work site, it just crushed me because of the issues that I had to listen to in the population. And I just knew that from my past experience and seeing kids being abused that I cannot just sit back and do nothing. Right. So I was like, okay, so being a therapist is not for me. I completed my degree at UNCW in psychology. So my whole concept was around the veteran community. I started off at Cape Fear by doing a speech on Veteran's Day back in 2013. And then that kind of catapulted my advocacy and then I linked up with Disabled American Veterans and became a veteran's chapter service officer there, where I did VA claims pro bono and that still continued to present day. So while in college I volunteered my time with disabled American veterans and then went to Pender county Veteran Services where I was there for a short period of time before this position was open. So really what got me into this was helping other veterans and their family members. So I had veterans from Vietnam, World War Two veterans, spouses of World War Two veterans who lost their husband that needed help in navigating the VA system so that they can bury their husband. Or Vietnam veterans who had agent orange, right. For over 30 years, I had this one client who the VA denied, denied, denied, but because of my training with the Disabled American Veterans, I was able to push in all the evidence and it changed his life because now, he was able to get treatment for his cancer. And then next thing you know, a year later he calls me up. He was like, "I'm in remission." I was like, "oh my goodness, man, this is amazing." You know. So every story is different. But by being able to fight for our veterans, being able to do their VA claim to get them the treatment, healthcare that they need, whenever they come back and be like, "Hey, our case was won," and it really strikes a heart string, you know, just helping, helping people in general.
Gina: You are a compassionate warrior.
Ray: Yes, I like that!
Ray Chafauros, the Director of Veteran Services at Cape Fear Community College