Student veteran pushes Weber State to create a USO-like center
Editor's note: This is an occasional series following Jen Carver Comer, an Army veteran in her senior year of studies for sociology and criminal justice degrees at Weber State University.
Ogden • It's a good thing Jen Comer's PowerPoint presentation is displayed on a big screen.
She talks so fast, drilling the arcane Robert's Rules of Order into her fellow student senators, that it would be difficult, otherwise, to keep up.
Comer, 28, is in her element, nearly 10 years after she first went to Iraq as a young soldier.
A criminal justice and sociology major who loves the notion of being a policymaker, she is parliamentarian for Weber State University's Student Senate. And, when she's not in class or palling around with political candidates, she's advocating for one of the northern Utah university's fastest growingpopulations: veterans.
What she wants most is to get Weber State to create a stand-alone Veterans Center. "My idea is like a USO on campus," says Comer, referring to United Service Organization centers that support and entertain military service members. "It's holistic."
Such a center would be larger and more expansive in its mission than the current Veterans Service Center, which focuses mostly on helping vets access their GI Bill benefits.
She envisions comfortable couches and chairs, a kitchen, game consoles and televisions, tutors and counselors, a pool table and a speed bag for those who feel like taking a punch.
Veterans returning from war or deciding, a few years after discharge, to pursue a degree face all kinds of frustrations that could be eased by hanging out with other vets, says Comer, who works in the existing center.
"I can't tell you how many backpacks have met our back wall in finals week," says Comer. "I went through it; I know how it feels."
A political future? • Comer joined the Army right out of high school to escape a small California town and an unhappy home. She was in the signal corps, and served in Iraq in 2003 and again in 2005.
She married another soldier who hailed from Ogden shortly after leaving the Army in 2007, and ended up settling here so their son, T.J., who turns 5 this month, could be near his father's family even after they divorced. College was difficult, at first, for a number of reasons, including the disconnect she felt with students who never served.
In August, she married Daniel Comer, further ensconcing her in Utah, where she would eventually like to run for political office.
Last summer, Comer squired Ryan Combe, then a Democratic candidate for Congress, around Ogden's institutions that serve veterans a homeless shelter and a nursing home. (Combe lost the primary election).
She also has spent time with Peter Cooke, the Democratic candidate for governor and a retired Army Reserve general. In fact, she'll host him on campus in late October for a series of meetings with students and faculty.
In July, she and her betrothed spent a Saturday riding their Harley Davidson bikes through northern Utah to raise campaign funds for two Republican sheriffs.
"I tell people all the time I'm a sort of conservative liberal," says Comer. Before she came to Utah, she considered herself a hard-core Republican. "But they take Republican to a whole new level here," she says, laughing.
"People will say, 'Well, Republicans are better for the military.' And I say, 'That's right. But Democrats are better for the soldier."
'The right thing to do' • As Comer nears the mid-way mark of her senior year, she's beginning to get impatient with WSU's slow movement on an expanded veteran's center.
But there is progress, insists Charlie Chandler, the coordinator of the existing center and Comer's boss.
"It's gaining traction," says Chandler. "I just got word from my boss that we're kind of at the top of the list for consideration of projects."
The number of veterans enrolled at WSU shot up 25 percent, to 1,000, between spring and fall semesters, Chandler says. Even more student veterans are expected as troops come home from Afghanistan.
Jeff Hurst, WSU's dean of students, says the trick is finding the money at a time when state funding is tight and students can ill-afford higher fees or tuition.
"It's not about not valuing veterans; the opposite is true," says Hurst. "We need to make sure we attend to this, with all the service men and women coming."
Comer says she's considering getting the student and faculty senates involved in her campaign. Veterans, she says, deserve all the help the university can give.
"We don't honor vets for the ranks they held or the jobs they held, but because they signed a document saying they were willing to die for this country," she says.
"It's the right thing to do. I have to see it get done."
About American Homecomings
Find more profiles of veterans adjusting to civilian life on AmericanHomecomings.com, a collaboration of Digital First Media newsrooms across the country, including The Tribune.
About Jen Carver Comer
Age • 28
Residence • Riverdale
College • Weber State University, senior majoring in social work and criminal justice
Goal • Will graduate in spring 2013 and plans to pursue graduate degrees.
Service • U.S. Army 2002-07, served tours in Iraq in 2003 and 2005.