Jen Carver pushes for broader support for returning service members.
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Ogden • A confession alone is never enough for a conviction.
But who would confess to a crime he did not commit? asks the professor.
Jen Carver, a Grape Crush and a textbook open before her in a front-row desk, has some ideas: Maybe a parent protecting a kid, she offers, twirling a pen in her fingers. Maybe someone full of bravado.
This day, in a criminal justice classroom at Weber State University, Carver is confident, contributing.
But two years ago, the U.S. Army veteran was sitting with her back to the wall in another classroom, struggling with what she calls "post-military syndrome" after two tours in Iraq. The recently divorced mother of a toddler son was two years out of the Army, which had been her life since escaping an unhappy, poor home in a small California town at age 18.
Civilian life and math were kicking her butt.
Carver, 28, credits Charlie Chandler, the director of WSU's Veterans Services office, with rescuing her college career.
Fellow students tutored her in math, he says, and Carver gained confidence from success in the classroom and on the job as a work-study student in the Veterans Services office.
"Once she learned it's OK to have limitations and get some help, she was OK," says Chandler.
Carver today is Chandler's senior work-study employee and an ace advocate for veterans on campus. She recently won a seat in the WSU Student Senate, where she is now representing the veteran community.
"She is such a type-A person," says Chandler. "Failing at something wasn't in her vocabulary."
Juggling roles • Carver picks up T.J., now 4, at a home day care near campus and they are home not 10 minutes before her cellphone rings.
"What's up, dude?" she asks her classmate, a Purple Heart recipient worried about falling behind in a class. She explains the GI Bill will cover the cost of a course even if a vet fails, but won't pay for unexplained withdrawals.
A minute later, she's wiping up around T.J.'s bowl as he stirs his microwaved mac and cheese snack at the table. "Why you make a mess, dude?" she asks T.J. playfully.
Carver and her son have just moved in with her fiance in Riverdale, and she's intent on teaching her boy some etiquette.
She explains that the next time he feels compelled to pass gas, he should go into another room. "I said excuse me!" protests T.J., but his mother has the last word.
"I don't like bad manners," she says.
Before the night is out, the two have taken his Hudson Hornet red electric car for a ride, they've looked up potato bugs on the Internet, and they've fallen into family banter.
T.J. is about to stage a fight between two plastic toy figures when his mother gives him the look. "Anger solves nothing," she says, a warning in her voice. "Love does," answers T.J.
"Love does," his mother affirms.
'A very big heart' • In the first meeting of the new WSU Student Senate, Carver tells her 20 fellow senators that her No. 1 goal is a student veteran resource center.
The existing Veterans Service office helps veterans get their GI Bill benefits, she says, but vets need broader support for the challenging transition back to the civilian and academic worlds.
"I almost dropped out after two years, and I'm one of many vets who feel that way," she says.
Nick Nava, the senator she replaces, says Carver's charisma and drive to help veterans got her elected and will make her a success.
"She has a very big heart when it comes to veteran students," says Nava.
Already, she can't walk across campus without being stopped several times. "This is why I don't study on campus," she laughs.
Chandler, her boss, says Carver is a bit of a mother bear in the veterans office, and will call out co-workers if they fail to help veterans navigate the bureaucratic maze for benefits.
She's learning to "crank it down a notch," says Chandler. Nonetheless, "The F-bomb will get dropped occasionally."
Carver called B.S. on the federal Veteran Affairs department's reluctance to pay for supplies that police academy students at WSU need, such as nightsticks and uniforms.
She arranged for a single vendor to supply them, and now they're covered by the GI Bill, just like books, Chandler says.
Not long ago, she called the Pentagon, skipping over several layers of bureaucrats, when she was getting nowhere in helping a reservist nail down his education benefits.
"It was my last resort," shrugs Carver.
"She told me after the fact," says Chandler. "I'm OK with that.
"She believes they've earned this. It's their entitlement, and it's our job to make sure they get it."
Rosemarie Young and Tyler Kenny met at Michigan Army National Guard training, served in Iraq together and are now married, enjoying their newborn son.
Tim Kenney went to war at 42 because he was tired of seeing 20-somethings losing their lives in faraway wars and returned to Colorado a wounded man, unsure he can resume his life as a guide.
Jen Carver struggled after two tours in Iraq, but now energetically helps other vets make their way at Weber State University.
They are among the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan whose stories will unfold over the next year on a new website, americanhomecomings.com.
Some have brutal injuries or psychological scars, some have broken marriages, some have no jobs and some have very intact lives. Americanhomecomings.com will post regular updates on their stories along with arresting video and photos. Also on the site you will find the best blogs about military affairs and veterans, news, the latest on movies and books, and a place for veterans to share their photos and stories about their time away and their return home.
The effort is a collaboration by The Salt Lake Tribune, The Denver Post and other Digital First Media newsrooms.