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One of the most intriguing aspects of humanity is our desire to share stories with one another. Stories drive people closer together, unite tribes under common banners, provide community, and promote healing and growth.
While the way we tell stories isn’t ubiquitous, our desire to be a part of them is. Texas A&M University-San Antonio (TAMU-SA) has begun construction on the 22,000 square foot military education and counseling facility, Patriots’ Casa – placing the university and its innovative programing at the heart of San Antonio’s story as a “military city.”
According to U.S. Army retired Maj. Gen. Charles Rodriguez, chief of staff and vice president of Strategic Initiatives and Military Affairs at TAMU-SA, they began dreaming up the Patriots’ Casa a couple years ago. The goal is to create a space “that would help (military veteran students) translate who they are into what they will be,” providing both academic and psychological support.
“The idea came from working with the Warrior and Family Support Center. We felt that the facility was great but it led us to ask what would military families need for the next step? What would they need to succeed on a college campus?”
While physical recovery is taxing enough, many of these soldiers and their family members face other unique challenges as they migrate from the hyper-structured world of the military to university setting where everything isn’t so black and white. Classroom attendance, for instance, is more of a personal choice than mandatory training drills and networking is key.
“A large number of wounded vets and former military personnel end up in San Antonio. They tend to work themselves up from the Center for the Intrepid to the Warrior and Family Support Center and, we hope, to the Patriots’ Casa,” said Richard Delgado Jr. director of Military Relations.
“We wanted to design a place to help the students with connections, help them bridge the gap between the loosey-goosey structure of university life and the regimented world of the military and to create a space that promotes healing, helps these families tell their story, and provide them a place to come home to.” said Maj. Gen. Rodriguez.
As with the rest of the Texas A&M system, TAMU-SA has a strong connection to the military with approximately 12-14% of the student body receiving federal financial aid through programs like the GI Bill.
With the bountiful connections to the military bases in the city and with the support and advocacy from TAMU-SA President Maria Hernandez Ferrier, the Patriots’ Casa team got together and began researching and designing the facility and programming that would serve both military families and the university’s counseling students.
With years of research and personal experiences poured into the construction of the Casa, the space will accomplish these goals by providing students with places to meet, an airy and glass filled ceremony room for special events, a family and military counseling center dedicated to helping soldiers and their families work through the unique challenges of military and civilian life, and a beautiful gallery space where soldiers and their families will be able to leave behind mementos associated with their service.
“The gallery space is my favorite component,” said Delgado, himself a former marine and student of TAMSU-SA.
“It is right next to the ceremony room and it is a space for military members to leave items behind that promote healing and help them tell their story. Each item will be accompanied by an audio recording of from the individual that tells why the piece is important,” he said. “We chose to present the items through audio message because it is more moving to hear individuals share their stories themselves. The goal of the gallery is to inspire camaraderie and spark hope for healing.”
After speaking with numerous members of the Patriots’ Casa team, I was most struck by how deliberate each choice was. From the color palette, to the layout and size of each room – every aspect of the Casa was meant to echo the soldier’s story and promote healing through the formation of shared experience.
“The critical first step for healing was to create a space with a narrative. From the bottom floor to the top, from room to room, each step of the building drives awareness through shared space and shared story,” said Paul Alt, a Chicago-based architect who has worked on many facilities that tailor to the needs of veterans, including Patriots’ Casa.
“Even the colors are deliberate,” said Alt. “We chose a lot of Texas earth tones and used a lot of local wood. We wanted to make a space that was warm and embracing but not overwhelming. It was important to choose colors that brought familiarity from the outside in … (high) contrast is also really important because it is easier for those with visual impairment from head wounds to get around.”
While areas in the building like the gallery and ceremony room represent places where healing can be celebrated, another critical component of the Patriots’ Casa is the on site, pro-bono counseling led by Dr. Albert Valadez, head of TAMSU-SA’s Department of Leadership and Counseling and marriage and family counseling graduate students.
“Having a counseling center on site is critical. It provides a space for military men and women and their families to see counselors trained in military culture,” Dr. Valadez said.
It is especially important for military veteran students to have a counselor that has an understanding of where they are coming from – someone who understands military culture. Many times counselors who see military patients are not familiar with the structure and as a result are apt to pathologize tendencies and conditions which stem from normal, everyday military experiences.
The $12 million Patriots’ Casa project will be fully functional for the fall 2014 semester and it’s expected become a model for campuses across the country.
According to Casey Annunzio, Patriots’ Casa lead architect and project manager at Munoz and Company, projects like the Casa are important because it is a way to serve the population that has given this country so much.
“Our focus is to dream big and create a space to help guide this population back to health,” Annunzio.
In the end, while the Patriots’ Casa is intended to provide a safe space for the military community, it is open to everyone. The team hopes that it will also be used as a space where civilian and military students can come, learn together and share and create new stories.
John Burnam is a nonprofit consultant currently working with San Antonio Christian Dental, Eyecare San Antonio, The Louise Batz Foundation for Bedside Advocacy, and The San Antonio Non-Profit Council. He works in patient safety, community health and well-being, and nonprofit development. He graduated with a degree in Classics and Art History from Trinity University and a Masters of Theological Studies from Vanderbilt before returning to SA last summer. Interested parties can learn more at: www.johnburnamconsulting.com.