From barracks to residence hall: Student-veteran finds a new home on campus

From barracks to residence hall: Student-veteran finds a new home on campus

Story by Gretchen Menand and Maggie Walsh, Photos by Joe Mendoza

After four deployments with the U.S. Army, packing became routine for Raleigh Heekin. This time, however, was different. Heekin joined the other weary-eyed, post-finals Colorado State students as they packed their belongings in Summit Hall, shifting their sights from the spring semester of learning to summer jobs or to launching adventures in far-off places.

Heekin, who served in the U.S. Army for 20 years, and his service dog, Winnie, are looking forward to moving back home after finals. His wife, Misty, and their four children aged 7-16, have remained in their house in Denver, while Heekin attends CSU.

Today, Heekin and Winnie say goodbye to the students they’ve shared a floor with for a year.

“I enjoyed living in Summit Hall because of the sense of community and also because I felt like a platoon leader again,” Heekin says. “My house is always the house extra kids hung out in, anyway. The dorm is kind of like that.”

Heekin, from Littleton, Colo., enlisted in the Army when he was 17 and retired from military service in 2014 as a sergeant first class. He first became interested in CSU when he visited campus after completing his basic training more than 22 years ago. Now, he’s a year and a half away from completing his newest mission, a degree in social work from CSU. He hopes to assist fellow veterans after graduation.

Sense of community

Heekin said living on campus helped him with the loneliness he felt being away from his family (whom he would visit on weekends) and also the transition from military to college life.

Detachment, loneliness and isolation are far too common for many returning soldiers, especially those who suffer injuries and loss. Heekin served in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Ukraine in the 1990s, and Iraq from 2006 to 2007. In Iraq, an IED exploded beneath the vehicle carrying Heekin, a driver and a medic as they set out to help fellow platoon members who had been attacked. The explosion seriously injured Heekin, and killed the driver and the medic.

Being connected to others and a sense of community can be critical for returning veterans.

“If I hadn’t lived in the residence hall, and had lived by myself in an apartment off campus, I could have easily started down the path of isolation,” Heekin says. “You lose a lot of your support system when you leave the military.”

Spencer Cox, a freshman studying communications and dorm neighbor of Heekin, says the jovial veteran, who often tells very funny jokes, wasn’t the only one to benefit from the non-traditional living arrangement.

“The thing I appreciated most about Raleigh was how he genuinely cared about everyone living in our hall. He always made sure that everyone was safe and happy and when people went out for the evening, he would make sure that they came home safe,” he adds. “He gave out his phone number to just about everyone in the hall and told us that we could call for anything next year when we were all living on our own.”

Colorado State provides an environment and services to support its 1,250 student veterans transition from military service to higher education. Heekin says that he felt welcome the day he walked on campus, and he appreciates the support and community among fellow veterans here.

“At CSU there are so many people and programs willing to help, not to mention the students who are so accepting,” Heekin says. “They have all given me my new support system.”

Visit veteransresources.colostate.edu to support or learn more about programs for student-veterans at CSU.