Truman Scholar Focused On Helping Veterans, Keeping Abenaki Culture Alive
- By Jon C. Reidel
Even the smallest task seemed insurmountable to 2012 Truman Scholar Brent Reader when he returned home from a tour in Iraq as an Army combat medic. Just a trip to the store where he'd overhear everyday, trivial conversations was insufferable for the veteran as he fended off images from the war, including the trauma of trying to save the life of his close friend who had been shot beside him.
Reader, a junior social work major, spent twelve months in Ar Ramadi, considered the most dangerous city in the world at the time, and saw everything from ambushes to roadside bombs to firefights. On one occasion, he recalls walking over dozens of bodies after two people detonated themselves in a line to sign up to become Iraqi army and police.
“I had to tip-toe across the bodies I couldn’t help anymore to get to the ones I still could,” he recalls. “I can remember seeing a guy get shot in the chest and then talking to my daughter 45 minutes later on the phone about her finger painting. I had to shut my emotions off to deal with the war, but it’s a lot harder to turn them back on when you return. I was a complete mess when I got home.”
Reader says it took years to get his own issues under control and that he didn't always connect with counselors who hadn't served and didn't understand what he was going through. This helped fuel his desire to help other veterans, some of whom were coming to his house just to talk or ask questions about accessing veteran services. His wife, Misty, half-jokingly started calling their residence "the home for wayward soldiers" and encouraged him to go back to school.
‘Physician, heal thyself’
“There’s a saying, ‘physician, heal thyself,’ that really spoke to me,” says Reader, who credits his father, a Vietnam War veteran and educator, for helping him deal with his post-war struggles. “The best way for me to do that is to help others. I had started to address my own issues and I wanted to help other veterans, but I wasn’t sure how to do that outside of the military. That’s when I decided to go back to UVM for social work.”
Before the war, before marrying and having children, Reader originally enrolled at UVM after graduating high school in 1996, but struggled in the classroom before being dismissed from the university in 1998. “I didn’t take college seriously, didn’t appreciate it,” he says of his first attempt. “I let it slip through my fingers.” After leaving school he worked at IBM and Ben & Jerry’s before feeling a duty to join his fellow Vermonters in Iraq.
After his medical discharge from the Guard in 2010, Reader returned to UVM focused on a new goal: to pursue a bachelor's in social work (eventually a master's and possibly a doctorate) to help fellow veterans through counseling, teaching and the improvement of public policy.
Even while struggling with the aftermath of the war, including post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury he sustained from a series of IED blasts, Reader has thrived at the university. This spring, he was named as one of only 65 Truman Scholars nationwide, an award for those with a goal of making a difference in public service. Truman Scholars receive leadership training and financial support to attend graduate school.
Earning the Truman
In addition to his work and aspirations to help veterans, Reader, an Abenaki Nation member, was cited for his work as a public health researcher for the Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities at the Vermont Department of Health. He has played a central role in the University of Vermont/Abenaki Partnership, where he’s been directly involved with planning and administration of community development projects in Franklin and Grand Isle Counties that reinforce culturally competent approaches to social services. He is one of a half-dozen people who can still speak Western Abenaki, which he made a point to learn from an elder in an Abenaki village north of Montreal after a conversation with his great-grandmother who stressed the importance of keeping the dying language alive.
Reader, whose 2010 briefing to Sen. Bernie Sanders helped the legislator appropriate $2.1 million to the Vermont Veterans Outreach Program, is the third UVM student to win the Truman award. Alumna Kesha Ram, now a Vermont state representative, was a winner in 2007 and William F. Steinman was a winner in 1988. Two other UVM students were chosen as finalists for this year's Truman award: Alma Arteaga '13, an economics and environmental studies double-major from Keene, N.H. and Eliza Kelsten ’13, a political science and history double-major from New Albany, Ohio.
The Truman Foundation selects finalists and scholars through a rigorous application review and interview process, which, at UVM, is overseen by the Office of Fellowships Advising.
“Brit Chase, our fellowships adviser, spends an almost unimaginable amount of time recruiting and then preparing students for the Truman competition,” said Lisa Schnell, associate dean of the Honors College. “All four Truman nominees this year benefitted enormously from Brit’s dedication; the three finalists, in particular, know how much of her goes into this process. But the success of these candidates is all their own — they are an amazing group of students. All of us who were associated with the competition this year were inspired by them. And we simply could not be happier that Brent made it all the way — he’s an extraordinary human being.”
For his Truman application, Brent received letters of support from Captain Christopher Gookin, U.S. Army; Geoffrey Pippenger, constituent advocate for Senator Bernie Sanders; Dr. Joseph Nasca, a pediatrician from Georgia, Vt.; and Professor Gary Widrick, chair of UVM’s Department of Social Work.
“I’ve been fortunate to have Brent as a student in two of my classes,” says Widrick. “His contributions have always been exceptional and based upon clear reasoning and a desire to push his learning boundaries. He is clearly a student leader but in a quiet, confident way that wins him support from his fellow students.”
With the help of the Truman award, Reader will hone his leadership skills and carry out his original mission in returning to school.
“Whenever someone says that soldiers who are coming home from war are falling apart, then the blame game starts,” Reader says. “Some will blame the VA for being too slow in delivering services or the military for not mitigating PTSD symptoms, but the truth is that it’s more complex than that and involves numerous reasons. I don’t want to point blame; I just want to fix the problem through good public policy.”