By Clara Turnage
University of Mississippi
University of Mississippi student veterans will hear from an American hero whose story inspired a blockbuster movie this month at the third annual Veteran’s Alumni Gala.
On March 31, the Office of Veteran and Military Services will host a black-tie gala at The Inn at Ole Miss to honor student veterans and provide networking opportunities among students, alumni, university officials and business leaders.
The keynote speaker is Mike Durant, a decorated veteran, author and businessman. Durant was the pilot of “Super Six Four,” one of two Black Hawk helicopters shot down during the Battle of Mogadishu on Oct. 3, 1993. The only survivor of the crash and subsequent attack, Durant was held as a prisoner of war for 11 days.
Following his release, Durant continued to serve in the Army until 2001, when he retired with more than 3,700 flight hours, numerous medals and a Bronze Star, the U.S. armed forces’ decoration for heroic service.
His story later became the inspiration for the 2001 film “Black Hawk Down.”
“His story is unreal,” said Andrew Newby, assistant director of veterans and military services. “People have an idea of what he has done, but to have him tell you his experience is an incredible opportunity.
“I want them to be amazed that we have the ability to get through these seemingly impossible things. He is a shining example of grit and determination.”
The event, which is already sold out, will also include the awarding of five scholarships to outstanding Ole Miss student veterans. The five awards include the Initiative Award, Spirit Award, Perseverance Award, Genius Award and the Dewey Knight Leadership Award.
“I want people to realize that we have student veterans, and they are a part of the fabric of this campus,” Newby said. “The idea is to elevate the experience of these students and to give them a way to tell their story.”
Part of the event includes giving students a chance to network with a business leader from their field of study. Students are paired with attendees who share his or her interest or career path, letting students conduct what former Student Veteran Association President Jamie King called an “unofficial job interview.”
“They get to have dinner with someone they’d never get a chance to in a normal world, and they’re looking at things with a different perspective,” King said.
While offering networking opportunities, the event is also a way of building a community for student veterans on campus, King said.
“Student veterans get overlooked a lot,” he said. “They’re transitioning from the military environment to a scholastic environment, and that’s hard.
“What we’re doing is trying to foster an environment where if they have questions, they know who to go to. Because what they need is to have a venue where they can say, ‘I belong here.'”
Jake Trujillo, a 25-year-old freshman exercise science major and U.S. Marine Corps veteran from San Antonio, said he often felt that disconnect between himself and other students when he arrived on campus last fall.
“You wouldn’t think a seven- or eight-year gap would be that big, but it is,” Trujillo said. “It is really hard for veterans to speak with other students without intimidating them or feeling different. We have such different experiences.”
Each Veteran and Military Services event, including the gala, is meant to help build a sense of community for student veterans so that they feel welcomed and wanted on campus, Newby said.
“Simply put, having the gala gives our students the opportunity to interface with people they probably wouldn’t normally meet and gives us a chance to highlight them,” Newby said. “We want to recognize who you are, what you’ve done and celebrate the multifaceted idea of the student veteran.”
Trujillo said he looks forward to hearing Durant speak and meeting veterans and people who support veterans on campus.
“It’s going to be really cool seeing the different generations of veterans who are all going to be in the same room,” Trujillo said. “We’re really not so different, after all.”