Stephen Stevens looked more like a jazz musician than a champion of veterans Thursday as he stood on a sidewalk between buildings at Horry Georgetown Technical College.
With his modified Van Dyke mustache and beard, shaved head, black fedora, sunglasses and gray cardigan sweater-vest over a checked shirt and tie, it was easy to wonder when he might break out his saxophone and work his way through a rendition of “Summertime.”
But in reality Stevens was the reason for the cluster of people around the mobile Vet Center, which was making its first visit to the campus. It was Stevens who asked the Veterans Administration to make the stop at HGTC, said Patrick O’Leary, transitional patient advocate for the VA Southeast Network.
Stevens worked the crowd, finding veterans who needed the information he could give them.
The Vet Center’s mission at the college was much the same as Stevens’ job there: to see that the nation’s veterans have as much information as possible about the services and benefits available to them. Two representatives of Little River American Legion Post 186 – invited to the event by Stevens – also stood outside the mobile unit behind a table covered with brochures, reinforcing the idea to students/veterans there are places they can go to find out things that will make their lives easier.
Stevens’ presence at HGTC has rejuvenated the college’s veterans assistance program, said Marilyn Fore, HGTC executive vice president for continuing education. The college is planning to establish a standalone veterans office and a place for the student veterans club to meet.
Fore said the college would have created the space even if Stevens wasn’t at the school, but she was impressed by the energy and commitment he brings to his job.
“We’re finding (veterans) are so uninformed,” John Warholak, service officer at the Little River post, said at Thursday’s event. “They don’t know about the programs.”
Stevens was once in that position himself.
A veteran of 26 years in the U.S. Army who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he was wounded, Stevens had to learn for himself how the government aids veterans through their education. He found out after he had enrolled at HGTC that the VA has a work-study program where he could earn money and assist veterans at the S.C. unemployment office in Conway.
While there, he learned there was a job at the college working with veterans. He grabbed it.
Stevens said the military tries to teach departing service men and women about the benefits available to them, but their minds may be elsewhere during class time.
“When you’re getting out,” he said, “a lot of times you’re just thinking about getting out and not concentrating on what’s being said in the meetings.”
Hence, the need for people like him at colleges and universities including Coastal Carolina University, the mobile Vet Center and volunteers/veterans from the American Legion.
Stevens has earned an associate’s degree in human services and is working toward a B.A. in sociology at CCU. Eventually, he wants to work on social justice issues at the Veterans Administration.
Larry Maxon, an Iraq veteran who lives in Surfside Beach, says he’d probably be wifeless and homeless if it weren’t for Stevens.
He was already enrolled at HGTC and in bad need of money when he met Stevens. It was through Stevens that he learned about the benefits he had earned as a marine and was hired for the work-study job that Stevens had once filled.
The $2,000 he earns each month is critical to him and his family, he said.
“He knew all kinds of stuff,” Maxon, now also enrolled at CCU, said of Stevens. “If he didn’t know, he’d find out for me.”
He said the two still keep in touch.
“If I have problems,” Maxon said, “I’ll go talk with him.”
As he does with Maxon, Stevens may work for veterans as much outside of his HGTC job as he does in it. He arranged for the Little River American Legion Post to make its meeting room available for free for meetings of younger vets. He makes forays into low-income neighborhoods to find the vets who may need help the most.
“There are a lot of veterans out there who slip through the cracks,” he said.
Stevens said he works with about two veterans a month who are homeless and will help those not planning to go to school as well as the ones who are.
In an interview, Stevens said he didn’t want this story to be about him. But it’s hard to write about the rejuvenation of the veterans assistance program at HGTC without writing about him.
“He’s been a huge life support for me,” Maxon said.