Elizabeth Watson can't remember a time in her life when someone in her family wasn't serving in the United States armed forces.
Her grandfather was at the Battle of Guadalcanal during World War II. Her stepfather served in Vietnam, her uncle in Somalia. Two nephews are currently serving in Afghanistan.
"As a little girl, I remember seeing my grandfather's metals displayed, and recognizing they symbolized someone brave enough to serve," she said.
Watson took those memories to heart and she now works on behalf of veterans and military service members at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
Her dedication received statewide attention in April when she was named 2013 Veterans' Volunteer of the Year by the Wisconsin Department of Veteran Affairs.
"Veterans and military students constitute a quiet piece of diversity on the UW-Whitewater campus," she said. "Each year, about 300-400 students self-identify to receive benefits. We want these students to be just as successful as the 18 year olds who enter from high school."
But transitioning from the highly structured military world to the unstructured life of a university student can be a challenge.
Besides navigating the mounds of federal benefits paperwork, veterans have significant adjustment challenges - something Watson, as director of UW-Whitewater's Center for Students with Disabilities, sees firsthand.
"They're dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, head injuries and lost limbs. They're trying to reestablish relationships with family and friends, when they come back from duty as fundamentally different people," Watson said. "For us to take a moment to see how that affects their education here at UW-Whitewater is important."
Watson is chair of the Chancellor's Veterans and Service Member Committee, now in its sixth year. Administrators, faculty and staff members comprise this volunteer group that seeks to support students in myriad ways.
As chair, Watson is responsible for executing the group's ideas. She spearheaded an effort to create the Veterans and Service Members Lounge, a dedicated space for students to study and socialize. Through the UW-Whitewater Foundation, Watson helped create the Veterans Program fund. The money goes back to students in the form of scholarships and emergency stipends for students' personal expenses not covered by state and federal dollars.
As a member of the UW System President's Advisory Committee on Disability Issues, Watson works to bring awareness to veterans issues and promote services. She encouraged a colleague in the UW-Whitewater Languages and Literatures Department who wanted to create an English course for veterans.
One of her proudest achievements is the creation of the UW-Whitewater Gratitude Coin. These tokens, known as challenge coins in the military, foster a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood out of shared experience.
Two-hundred fifty people have received the coins, which are given to graduating veterans, ROTC cadets and others who support veterans. Watson, on behalf of Chancellor Richard Telfer, distributes the coins. It's as special as it is gratifying.
"It's the closest I can ever get to handing out a medal," Watson said. "It's UW-Whitewater's way of showing the admiration and respect we have for military service."
PHOTOGRAPHY by Craig Schreiner
(Top) UW-Whitewater's Elizabeth Watson is shown with a POW-MIA flag.
(Bottom) UW-Whitewater junior and Iraq War veteran Ryan Lonergan talks with Elizabeth Watson in the Veterans and Service Members Lounge in Andersen Library. Watson was among those who helped create the space for veterans and service members.