This Friday, Nov. 11, is Veterans Day—a federal holiday observed annually to honor military veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces.
Nearly 400 active-duty military members, reserves, veterans, spouses and dependents are enrolled at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, which equates to approximately 3.5% of the student population.
Many more work in faculty and staff roles, including Robert Dorsett, associate director of the University’s Veteran and Military Affairs department, and Sam Mao, the department’s veterans benefits specialist.
“Veterans Day is remembering all those that came before us; without them, we wouldn’t be here,” said Mao, who retired in 2019 after 20 years with the U.S. Marine Corps—the maritime land force service branch of the U.S. Armed Forces.
“We’re here to appreciate them and let them know they’re not alone and not forgotten. It’s what we call, ‘We have your six. We’ve got your back no matter what.’”
To celebrate Veterans Day, Veteran and Military Affairs—thanks to generous donations from partners and sponsors—will host food trucks on campus from 2-6 p.m. on Friday.
“We wanted to be able to provide a free meal to veterans, so we thought the best way to do that was to engage with the food trucks here in the Chattanooga community,” said Dorsett, who—between active duty and the reserves—was a Marine from 2006-2013. “It’s a way to reach out to not only our veterans on campus but to the veterans within the community.”
Dorsett started at UTC this fall after spending his post-Marines career with several different higher ed institutions in Arizona, beginning with his own educational pursuits at Estrella Mountain Community College in Avondale, Arizona.
“The passion I have in working in this field is remembering that I struggled a lot transitioning out of the military and connecting with others,” Dorsett said. “I felt really alone; I just went to class and went home and it affected my grades. Although I studied hard, there’s always a benefit to connecting with other students in the class or on campus to help bridge that understanding of course materials.
“The driving factor for my passion is to help create events where they can network with other veteran students and all other students and become engaged.”
Dorsett said one of the main benefits Veteran and Military Affairs offers are connections to the different resources available both on campus and in the community—citing partnerships with organizations like the Chattanooga Vet Center, the Hamilton County Veteran Service Commission and the Tennessee Department of Veterans Services.
“We’re also here to help guide them in how to start their education,” he said. “I remember how difficult it was when I first got out. Even sitting in the classroom was sometimes difficult; I would see other students listening to their headphones or falling asleep in class. Coming from the Marine Corps, when you’re in training or in a lesson like that, you’re always engaged.”
Mao first came to UTC as a student following his military career and earned a bachelor’s degree in health and human performance in 2021. Along with his Veteran and Military Affairs duties, he is a reservist in the disaster security operations branch of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, better known as FEMA.
In his UTC role, Mao works with any student who uses a Department of Veterans Affairs benefit.
“I was in their shoes,” Mao said. “I spent 20 years in the military. I started off as very entry-level and worked to be a chief warrant officer. I went from being told to do everything to the person supervising and planning everything.”
Mao talked about working with students in different life and military career stages. Those in the National Guard, he said, are reservists; they haven’t experienced full military duties yet.
Those with four to eight years in the military better understand the services he provides, he said, “and the ones that are retired—that’s a totally different generation. I can speak to them and guide them through the whole process.
“That’s what I bring to the table. Like I said, I’ve been there from the bottom, and I’ve been in a position where I can make decisions based on what’s required of me.”
UTC Veterans Day events include the annual TAPS Project, a moving musical event in which the melody of “Taps” will slowly make its way across campus thanks to the strategic placement of trumpet players around University grounds.
The TAPS Project starts at 9:45 a.m. and will feature approximately 30 trumpeters, including UTC students, faculty and community members.
In addition, the Chancellor’s Annual Veterans Day Luncheon for students, faculty and staff who are veterans or active military will take place at 11 a.m. at the University Center Tennessee Room. UC Foundation Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering Don Reising, who served in the U.S. Army from 1995-1999 and the Ohio Army National Guard from 1999-2005, will be the keynote speaker.