There is a brotherhood among military veterans, a unique sense of respect and camaraderie that Debbie Barrett understands.
She first witnessed it as a child growing up on Army bases. Her father was a quiet man and seldom shared details of his military service with the family, she said, but it wasn’t unusual for him to be called out late at night to counsel a young soldier. She doesn’t know what advice he offered or exactly how he helped, only that those serving under him often sought his guidance.
“I see it here, too,” she said. ” The veterans on our campus tend to stick together. They have a brotherhood, and I feel almost like mom to them. My main job is to help them get their educational benefits, their GI Bill, but I have gotten close to many of them. It’s a special bond.”
Her father was a 30-year veteran of the U.S. Army who reached the rank of command sergeant major, the highest possible for an enlisted officer. Her family moved frequently, living in Germany, California, Texas and Kentucky. And when Debbie was 12, they stayed with her grandmother in Saltville for 18 months while her father was deployed to Vietnam.
That experience helped her to understand the sacrifices that military families make.
Her mother would often stay up sewing all night because she couldn’t sleep, Debbie said, and look forward to the letters that would arrive every few days. She remembers the sense of dread that enveloped their home when the letters stopped arriving for several weeks, and the sense of relief that came when a whole stack arrived at once. And she remembers the quiet reception her father received the day he arrived home to await his next military assignment.
“They didn’t get a heroes welcome back then,” she said.
The family later moved to Germany again, where Debbie graduated from Nurnberg American High School, before returning to Southwest Virginia. Debbie enrolled at VHCC, where she earned an Associate’s Degree in Secretarial Science and was immediately hired as a Financial Aid Assistant. After retiring from the Army, her father used his educational benefits at VHCC, where he studied HVAC and electricity. Sadly, he passed away at the age of 63 from complications caused by Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam.
Debbie was promoted to her current role as Admissions and Veterans Officer in 1995. More than 70 service members, veterans, spouses or dependents who qualify for educational benefits through the U.S. military turn to her for help each semester. She also advises the Student Veterans Association and organizes the Veterans Day Observance on campus each year. She considers it a privilege to serve as Veterans Officer, she said, because she understands how much the nation owes to those who have served.
“I’ve worked here 41 years and of all the things I’ve done in that time, working with veterans is my favorite,” she said. “I’m here to help them with whatever they need, and it’s a part of my job that I really love.”