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Interview with Director of Military & Veterans Programs, Paul DeCecco

by Dana Zimbleman, English Faculty, SITREP Editor-in-Chief

In February 2021, MVP Director Paul DeCecco sat down with me to discuss his military career and the worthwhile projects he and his staff are involved in to help student veterans and their families. Over the last few years, I’ve collaborated with Paul and MVP on several veterans-related initiatives, including SITREP, and look forward to doing so again in the future.

DZ: Can you tell us about your military background? 

Director DeCecco: I knew at an early age that I wanted to join the Army. I think I can trace it back to fifth grade!

DZ: Wow!

Director DeCecco: I never wanted to do anything else. I loved being outside and ended up joining the Boy Scouts which only fueled my love of the outdoors and wanting to get into the military. All through high school and college, it was just what I wanted to do, I never changed my mind. I personally didn’t care if I enlisted or became an officer but ended up going to college as my dad told all of us kids that we didn’t have a choice… I had an older brother who went to Penn State University and was commissioned in the Army. I took the same route; I was commissioned in the US Army as an Infantry officer in May 1988. 

DZ: Is this the brother who wrote the article about the bayonet for the first issue of SITREP? His name was Angelo, correct? 

Director DeCecco: Yes, that’s him. I majored in geography as I thought would best help me be an infantry officer, which is what I wanted to be. I was very fortunate because it turned out that I loved the major. Even to this day, I love talking about and doing things with maps and geography.

DZ: My husband was a geography major as well. He was a cartographer.

Director DeCecco: My focus was cartography and geographical information systems. Probably the best thing that came out of that was that I met my wife at Penn State. We started going out in college and got married a few years later. We’ve been married…I think it’s been 28, 29 years this year. 

DZ: You’d better remember before the next anniversary rolls around!

Director DeCecco: (Laughs.) Oh, I remember the anniversary because we were married on October 31st

DZ: Ah! Halloween!

Director DeCecco: I never have a problem remembering it.

DZ: I’m sure there are some family jokes about marrying on Halloween!

Director DeCecco: Right! The wedding party came in with masks!

DZ: (Laughs.)

Director DeCecco: The Army put me on active duty in February of 1989. I did the typical infantry stuff. I did the basic course and went to my first assignment, which was here at Fort Carson, and my girlfriend, now wife, got a job in Denver. I was stationed here for four years, from 1989 to 1993. During that time, I deployed over to the Persian Gulf during the first Gulf War era. As part of that, I was one of two infantry companies in the Fourth Infantry Division that deployed. We had just transitioned from the old, armored personnel carriers that the Army used in Vietnam and all during the 1980s, to the Bradley Fighting Vehicles. The Fourth Infantry Division was the last active-duty division in the Army to get those ‘new’ vehicles. My company was the first to go through the transition. 

When the Division got tasked to send forces over, I was the executive officer, or 2nd in command at that time. Little known fact: when I was a platoon leader with the 4th I.D., my platoon sergeant was a guy by the name of Jim Barrentine, who now is our police chief.

DZ: Oh, really? 

Director DeCecco: Yeah! Jim and I deployed together. Jim was the company first sergeant at that time, and I was the company executive officer. We took our company over to Saudi Arabia, and we were tasked with protecting Patriot air defense sites. Back then, they were used for shooting down the Scuds. 

DZ: I remember those from that live CNN footage.

Director DeCecco:  Saddam’s threat was he was going to shoot Scuds at our troops there. My unit was there to provide protection for the Patriot Battery units as those units had no internal security elements. 

When I finished my tour at Fort Carson, I went to the Infantry advanced course at Fort Benning and then went to Fairbanks, Alaska and served as a battalion personnel officer, what they call an “adjutant”, and then as a company commander. My infantry company was chosen to deploy to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Some folks with a long memory might remember back in the 1990s we were holding Cuban migrants there. Cubans were trying to flee from Castro’s Cuba and crossing the Florida straits where they were picked up by our Coast Guard. Originally, they were all put in Panama, until the migrants rioted and then they were moved to Guantanamo Bay at the Marine base there. In fine Army fashion, the Army picked a company in Alaska in the dead of winter to go from minus 40 degrees to the tropical sunshine of Cuba! My company spent about seven months there. 

We worked with the different US Government agencies as they interviewed and processed all the migrants to help move them to the US or back to Cuba. When all of the migrants departed, we closed down the camps, although Guantanamo is still being used for detainees today in the same areas I worked. The Cuban migrants then weren’t considered detainees though, and I was like a village mayor with my infantry company providing a security and managerial infrastructure. I had two “villages,” one with about 3,500 people, the other with about 1,800 people. We were responsible for everything going on there. 

DZ: My understanding was that if they were picked up, they were automatically granted asylum. 

Director DeCecco: No, that was not the case. Back then the attorney general said, “We’ll do that,” (meaning that they would be granted asylum), but they ended up getting information from the Cuban government about criminals that they shared with the US. Afterwards, they did a bit of immigration filtering at that point.

DZ: I remember there was the controversy over that child, Elian Gonzalez…

Director DeCecco: That was actually post…

DZ: After you were there?

Director DeCecco: Yeah, that I believe was after. In the beginning of the US effort, about 60,000 people, no, more like 100,000, were put in the camps, both Haitians and Cubans. When I got there, there were about 25,000 migrants left. They reduced it very quickly in the beginning of the mission prior to when I got there because they did have a fairly accepting policy that brought them into the United States. However, by the time they got down to the end, when I was there, they started being a little pickier. I tell you this because we, my infantry company, had to deal with the people who then didn’t know whether they were going to the US or not. There were disturbances or riots and we had all manner of crimes among the migrants that you would find in any town; we had attempted murders and people harming themselves or harming others because they found out that if they harmed themselves sufficiently, they would get to go to the United States to get medical treatment, and once they put a foot on dry ground in the US, then they believed they were allowed to stay. 

After completing my tour in Alaska, I got the opportunity to start my training and education in my secondary specialty – as an Army Foreign Area Officer or FAO. These officers work around the globe and work with other nations’ militaries to help them develop and professionalize. In the big picture we encourage and help those nations hopefully become allies of the United States.

When I was chosen for the FAO program, we were allowed to ask for three geographical areas. I asked for the western hemisphere, Africa, or Europe; I asked for Europe mainly because of my family background. I still had family in Italy, so I thought it would be great to learn languages from that region. But there is a lot more need for folks in Africa and Latin America and I was chosen for Latin America. The Army sent me to learn Spanish at DLI (Defense Language Institute) and then I earned a graduate degree at the University of New Mexico.

DZ: What was your master’s degree field? Was it geography related? 

Director DeCecco: It is not, but you can’t really understand an area without taking geography into account. My studies were focused on economics, political science, and international management, but it was also focused on Latin America. All my papers and master’s level work were focused on the western hemisphere.

After graduate school I got to serve down in Guatemala. While I was in Guatemala, the Army decided it didn’t like the dual track system anymore where Army officers served in two specialties. For example, I served in the Infantry and as a Foreign Area Officer under the previous system. The Army determined that we could do a ‘better’ job if we focused in only one area instead of two (Dual track).  At that point in my career, the Army had already invested in me with a master’s degree and a language, and I think the Army believed that, “Infantrymen are a dime a dozen.” If Joe Southcott hears this, I don’t know whether he’ll agree.

DZ: (Laughs.)

Director DeCecco: So the Army kept me as a FAO instead of the infantry. At that time, I had about ten years of service, so for the next nearly twenty years, I worked in the western hemisphere as a Foreign Area Officer. It is a very non-traditional Army role. In fact, it’s a very small cohort of people. When I was in, there were only about 1,300 of us across the globe who did this kind of work. We worked in countries around the globe, on staffs at some of the highest levels in Defense and also in operational units down to Army division level. So there are folks who do what I do at the National Security Agency, the National Security Council, the office of the Secretary of Defense, Joint Staff, through all the combatant commands, military academies and at the operational level in Corps and Divisions. I worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency or DIA in Guatemala. During my career, I was stationed in Guatemala, Ecuador, and Venezuela. I worked for U.S. Southern Command in Venezuela and Ecuador, and as I said, in Guatemala, and essentially fell under the Defense Attaché Office with DIA. Our main role was to try to get those countries as allies to the United States and our policies.

Those were very interesting times. I wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything, even though all I ever wanted to do when I joined the Army was to be an infantryman. 

I did go into Afghanistan as well, as a Foreign Area Officer. I was there when President Obama was trying to reduce the number of forces in Afghanistan. I was on a team of people who worked with all the other partner nations, about 36 other nations, to try and get them to fill the gaps being created as we pulled U.S. forces out. 

Interestingly, I ended up working with the El Salvadorians in Afghanistan. They did a lot of the military police work. I worked with other nations such as Georgia, Poland too—my boss was actually a Polish general. We worked closely with all the nations there to build up the coalition so we could pull U.S. forces out, which we did, really quickly. When I got there, we were still at around 100,000. It might have grown recently under President Trump, but when President Obama left, I think we were down to about 10,000. It was a huge departure. 

It was great being a Foreign Area Officer and use my FAO skills in Afghanistan and be able to work with countries around the world. But mainly in my career, I focused on the western hemisphere. Here in the US, I worked on the Army staff, U.S. Southern Command, and US Northern Command here in the Springs. I actually served with Joe Southcott and Northcom. 

DZ: Ha!

Director DeCecco: I was Lieutenant Colonel Paul DeCecco then, and he was Colonel Joe Southcott at that point. We had no idea we were going to see each other again. 

DZ: It is such a small world. 

Director DeCecco: It is. 

DZ: How often was your family—your wife and kids—with you? Do you have kids?

Director DeCecco: Yep. We have two kids. My son was born when we were stationed in Guatemala. That was quite the experience because we decided we wanted to have the baby while we were there. That was a very unique experience as hospitals and health is a bit different from here. We went to check out the hospital when she was eight months pregnant, to see what we were getting ourselves into. Do you have kids?

DZ: No, I don’t. A golden retriever. For me, that’s close enough!

Director DeCecco: (Laughs.) Anyway, my wife was eight months pregnant, so we said, “All right, let’s go check out the hospital.” We walked into the hospital, explained who we were, and said we’d like to check out the maternity ward. This was 1999, and we felt like we had walked back in time about 50 plus years. We walked down halls with white painted concrete walls. It was in the basement. There were no windows, no nice pictures, and they brought us into a room with only a gurney with stirrups!

I asked the nursing aide—because they don’t have nurses like we think about it—”Don’t you have any other equipment in here?” She said, “Well, no, we’ll roll in whatever the doctor needs, but pretty much what you see is what you get.” 

DZ: Oh my!

Director DeCecco: You know, at that point, my wife and I were like, “Holy crap! What did we get ourselves into?” But it was too late for her to fly back. But we wanted to have that experience. And it was great. My son was born in July of 1999. 

My wife and I were very worried because at the time, people were stealing babies in Guatemala, especially American kids, so we were concerned whether the hospital had good accountability procedures.

After our son Nate was born, I was looking in the little room where all the babies were, so I said, “Ok, I have no doubt who my kid is,” because Nate, who was small, was monstrous compared to all the little Guatemalan babies. It was funny, because I could hear the other Guatemalan families talking in Spanish about the other babies, saying, “Que Bonita!” (How pretty), “Que Bello!” (How beautiful!) but when they looked at Nate, they said, “QUE GRANDE!” (How LARGE!) 

DZ: (Laughs.)

Director DeCecco: And then we have a daughter whom we adopted from China, so both of our kids were born overseas. We adopted our daughter when she was 10 months old. We went to Chongqing, China.

DZ: I’ve been to Chongqing. I taught for a year in China, in Changsha, I was there, my gosh, 30 years ago! (Laughs.)

Director DeCecco: My son is 21, and my daughter was born in 2005, so she’s 15 now. She’ll be 16 this year.

DZ: Driving age soon! Is she already nagging about a car? 

Director DeCecco: Nope. She isn’t. But I’ve already laid it out that she’s not getting a car. I’ve made it very clear.

DZ: (Laughs.) 

Director DeCecco: Her brother didn’t get one. She’s not getting one, until they go to college. 

DZ: That’s a good plan.

Director DeCecco: I think so. 

My military career was very non-traditional. The standard Army officer stays in operational units, but that wasn’t what I did. I ended up being assigned to usually very small staffs and working on projects that were very strategic in nature, things that impacted either bilateral relations between countries or even the entire region. 

Like everything else in the military, it has its frustrating moments, and because it was so strategic in nature, these things take a long time. It was kind of one of those things you must buy into to really put your heart into it. Even though I might have been at a job for three years, the things we were working on usually took longer than that so you often either started a project that someone else finished or finished a project that someone else started. It was rewarding that I got to work with great people from many different nations as well as great US professionals from many government agencies. 

For my last job in the Army, I served as the Inspector General of U.S. Southern Command which oversees all military activities in Central and South American and the Caribbean. I got to travel in every country in the western hemisphere and work mainly with the U.S. folks stationed down there, but I also got to go back to Guantanamo 15 years after I was there as a captain in an infantry company. We also had forces down in Honduras in a mission called Joint Task Force Bravo. 

DZ: Now Joint Task Force Bravo, is that something related to drug interdiction?

Director DeCecco: It is. It was stood up in the ‘80s, I believe to be able to put U.S. forces into the region to directly support the countries in the drug fight. We had folks who were usually down there for 6 months to a year. They would rotate in to support the Central American nations in the counter drug fight. 

We began to work beyond just counter drug, because of the terrorist organizations in the region. Especially after 9/11, it became very apparent that what was happening in the western hemisphere was leaving this country very open to terrorism. U.S. Southern Command refocused to a much more comprehensive approach, to any type of potential enemy of the United States, including terrorism. I would say that was more of our focus, especially after 9/11. 

I was in Venezuela when 9/11 happened, and that’s a whole other story, but in Ecuador when I was there in 2013, we were more focused on groups that were using drugs and drug money to build up their organizations, again with potential to do something in the United States. Often, the folks in DC think of the Western Hemisphere as a backwater area, not that important—until it’s not, until something happens. Then suddenly, we ask ourselves, “How did we forget what’s going on down there?” It was a very interesting time, to see that transition from counter drug to counter terrorism, and work with all the U.S. forces in that region. 

As I said, I was in Venezuela during 9/11. That country changed from very supportive, perhaps the most supportive in the region, to the most anti-U.S. country in the region in the mid-2000s. I was there when the coup happened with Hugo Chavez, and we don’t have enough time to talk about that, but that was a very, very exciting time. 

By the way, my family didn’t go with me to Afghanistan, but they did go with me to Guatemala, Venezuela, and Ecuador. I am happy my kids got to experience what a lot of kids in the United States don’t, which is living in a different country, culture, and environment. We just don’t have that many service members overseas anymore, as we did in the late 1980s and the 1990s when many families lived overseas. The experiences you can have living in another country are just tremendous – both good and bad. When we were in Venezuela and the crisis happened, US citizens, not just service members or embassy personnel, had to leave the country because of security threats—my family had to leave twice for extended periods of time. They would return to Venezuela, then the situation would deteriorate, and they would have to leave again. Then they would come back. My family remembers that and their other experiences distinctly

DZ: Where were you housed when you were there? Private facilities the government had rented?

Director DeCecco: No, we had to find our own housing. The U.S. has infrastructure, our US Embassies, in most of the countries around the world, so they help, but we had to find housing in the zones that the U.S. said were ok to live in. The house had to meet certain security requirements too, and the RSO, the Regional Security Officer for the U.S. embassy, would come out and inspect and say, “Yep. This meets security requirements.” But we had to go find it. 

Since we lived on the economy, we used Guatemalan, Venezuelan, and Ecuadoran doctors. That is true for all services. If we needed a plumber, we had to hire a plumber. Even schooling. Typically, there are American schools, not meaning the U.S. owned the schools, but there are schools around the world that call themselves “American schools,” to allow kids from any nation to go there, to be taught under a U.S. curriculum because parents want their kids to learn English and the curriculum we have. We tried to put our kids in a school where they didn’t just learn English. We wanted them to learn Spanish and about the culture too. But we also knew we were eventually coming back to the United States, so we made sure they were getting the background they needed to be successful. 

Again, my career was very nontraditional. It more mimics someone who would have joined the State Department rather than the military, except that I had a background in the infantry which was critical in my career field. Ultimately, when I would go and represent myself to the Guatemalans or Ecuadorans or Venezuelans, or whatever other country I was working with, they looked at me as an Army officer first. They were looking to learn from my military experiences so having that experience as an infantry officer or my deployment to war was critical for me to be able to identify and connect with them. And I felt it was professionally important for me as well. Even though the Army and Department of Defense wanted me to focus on western hemisphere, I volunteered to go to Afghanistan. I felt it was important that I go and have that experience. 

 DZ: It’s just amazing how quickly time passes after you get a certain age! 

Director DeCecco: No kidding! I retired in June of 2017, and my last job was in Miami, Florida, with the U.S. Southern Command, and we knew we didn’t want to stay there. Previously, we had two assignments here in Colorado Springs. My first was as a lieutenant on Fort Carson, and second as a lieutenant colonel at NORAD NORTHCOM. At that point, we bought a house, and we knew wherever we ended up at the end of my military career, we wanted to move back to Colorado.  

And that’s what we did, job or no job, we returned here. In June of 2017, Jim Barrentine sent me an e-mail that said, “Hey, they just posted this job at PPCC. It seems like you would be a good fit for it.” 

It fit very well, because as I was looking back through my 29 years in the military, and at all the jobs I had throughout my Army career, the one constant I found, what I enjoyed, was working with people. What really jazzed me up, so to speak, was working with people. 

Being a Foreign Area Officer, I wrote lots of papers, helped write policy, helped develop policy. That was ok, but that was nothing like working with Ecuadoran or U.S. soldiers and taking them from point A to B in their training or their goals. I wanted a job that I could do something to help other people. That kind of pushed me to look for jobs that focused on a community. So I looked for jobs in the city of Colorado Springs or El Paso County. I looked for jobs with non-profits in the area. And I looked for jobs at the community college. Lo and behold, I got an e-mail from Jim and I applied. Here I am!

DZ: It seems like a natural transition from what you were doing, to coming in and helping students. 

Director DeCecco: It was. I can say truthfully that I chose to be here because this is the kind of work that I wanted to do. Not a week goes by that I don’t get to work with a student, though my job isn’t meant to be working at the customer service counter. Still, I enjoy doing that, working with individual students, helping them overcome whatever issues they may have, or helping them just apply or get excited about coming to school. I get to go home happy almost every day, knowing we made a little bit of a difference. 

DZ: In terms of working with the students, what strengths do veterans bring to the classroom? What unique challenges do they face? 

Director DeCecco: You know, with veterans, I believe they bring a diversity of experiences to the classroom And let me just include all military affiliated individuals including military spouses and even kids. For instance, my son lived in 8 or 10 different places before he started college here. He’s lived in 3 different countries. He attended about 8 different schools before he started college. My wife and I moved 16 times. She lived overseas and had all those types of experiences. We can talk about veterans, but I prefer to talk about all military and veteran affiliated people, because that’s what brings diversity here. 

All our military and veteran students tend to be a little bit older, have families, jobs, but they bring that diversity of background and experience as well. Most of the military here are Army, just because of where we are located right outside the gate of Fort Carson. Most of our students have deployed somewhere, whether into a combat zone or elsewhere. For example, we have units right now who are helping to give COVID shots. They deploy to help fight forest fires. They’ve deployed for any number of humanitarian reasons. They bring those experiences into the classroom too, not just wartime experiences. 

I think, and I bet you can validate this as an instructor, to have someone in the classroom who has real-world experience, who can lend that voice to a discussion beyond the instructor, has got to add a certain amount of richness to the classroom.

DZ: It does. Definitely. 

Director DeCecco: A lot of traditional universities don’t have the benefit of Colorado Springs and Pikes Peak, with all the military students. They may have a single military member in the room if they are lucky. We get the benefit of having multiple members, with many diverse types of experiences.

But that also brings challenges as well. They are coming with families. They are a bit older. Sometimes they can have a hard time identifying with their 18-year-old classmate sitting next to them. Sometimes, veterans say things like, “I’m sitting in the classroom, and I’m learning about theory, but I’ve been out in the world, and I’ve done it for real. Why do I need to learn math? I just want to be an EMT. Why do I need to learn English to be able to do what I want to do?” 

That real-world experience, I won’t say it’s a loss of perspective, but it can lead to frustration because they know they have a goal they want to get to, but they wonder why they must work through so many things to get there. They think, “Just teach me what I need to know.” 

DZ: I had a combat medic in my class a couple of years ago who was training to be an EMT. He dealt with gunshot wounds and all sorts of injuries he saw in the military, and he still had to go through civilian training, and that was really frustrating for him. 

Director DeCecco: That’s what I’m talking about. He’s probably taking Math, and he’s struggling, because a lot of our military and veterans haven’t done math or English in many years. Those basic courses just aren’t easy, but everyone must take them. 

DZ: Exactly. 

Director DeCecco: They struggle with that, and I would say it’s pride, and I don’t mean that in a negative way. But there’s a certain amount of pride in what they’ve accomplished in their life up to that point. So, when they come to the classroom, there’s a perception that it shouldn’t be difficult. “This is just school.” I find a lot of veterans don’t ask for help until it’s too late, or until it’s almost too late. That’s a shame because we don’t do anything in the military without someone on our left, someone on our right, and people in support. The old slogan, “An army of one,” is simply not true. Sometimes though that’s the attitude taken into the classroom, and that causes challenges, probably for the professor, too, who wants to help, but also for the student who would like help but doesn’t want to ask for it. 

Some of your questions you provided prior to our interview talked about MVP programming. This department does a lot for the military and veteran affiliated students. The impression that some people have is that all MVP does is process benefits, but there is much more than that. Customer service is the first touch point with every student, and in MVP it’s meant to be comprehensive in nature so that we answer the students’ questions even before they realize they have the questions. We’ve integrated Veterans Upward Bound into our Department. Kevin Walda’s office is literally right next to mine on purpose, so that everything we do is about getting them help even before they start classes; tutoring support, help with filling out FAFSA, and any other type of support they may need. We’ve developed mentor programming and a lending library. The college has given money for bookstore scholarships, so we can help students get over the barrier of not having money to buy books. The money the VA gives isn’t always enough to cover all the books, and it doesn’t come until they’ve been in class about a month or almost two months. It’s programs like those that have helped with financial and academic insecurity.

Unfortunately, with COVID, some of that work has been paused for two reasons. For one, the positions that worked those programs are frozen, under the college policy. And two, students weren’t coming into the office. Our military and veteran students are telling us in informal surveys and other data that they prefer in-person classes. While the college’s enrollment was 10 percent down, military and veteran enrollment was down about 25 percent for VA benefit-using students. When we did informal surveys, asking why they didn’t come back in the summer or fall of 2020, they told us it was because they wanted to be back in person again. For the student using VA benefits, it’s all about time since they get a certain number of months of benefits. They don’t have to use it all at once though. They can pause and go get a job. That seems to be what’s going on here but I really hope they come back. 

DZ: I certainly hope we’re all back. 

Director DeCecco: I do, too.

DZ: In terms of psychological counseling for military students suffering from PTSD, does your office offer them counseling and support, or does that come from other resources?

Director DeCecco: That’s a great question. While I say we do a lot for the college, we can’t do everything. Student Services has a great counseling center, so we work very closely with Yolanda Harris, the director of the counseling center. My Student Success Coordinator and I both share a role in community outreach. We’re directly linked with organizations in the community that work with veterans and their families. When we have a student who comes in and is in distress —and we do, every semester, every month, I would say, if the college can’t help, there are still dozens of organizations in Colorado Springs to help veterans and their families. We can refer students directly to those organizations. 

We’re linked in with Student Life, with the Community Table. As a matter of fact, we’ve just opened a Community Table site here in the MVP area so that military and veteran students can come in, and if they need a bag of food, they can get it. 

DZ: That’s great! I didn’t know that. 

Director DeCecco: Also, I’m on the advisory board for the Homefront Military Network which helps ensure that the organization has an educational advisor on the board. Dr. Bolton asked me to be college representative to the Chamber of Commerce, Military Affairs Council so I’m directly involved with that. With those two organizations alone, we are linked with pretty much any organization around the community that can get students the help they need when they need help. We also have close contacts with the various VA offices, and the Department of Defense too so that we can stay on top of changes and issues that may impact our students. 

DZ: What are some of the priorities of MVP, future initiatives that you are planning?

Director DeCecco: I believe that Pikes Peak is a leader in Colorado for military and veteran educational support. For example, we’ve put together a working group for prior learning assessment; the group is a cross functional group of volunteers with employees from MVP, records, and each of the instructional divisions. We worked through processes so that when military and veterans come to Pikes Peak, we recognize the work they’ve already done, and make sure they get the credit they’ve earned. I hope we can continue to do things like this into the future. 

I believe we have at PPCC what I would term a true military friendly college, not just a brand on somebody’s e-mail. I can talk to a history professor who understands military culture because they have a link to it. We have a lot of faculty members who are affiliated with the military. Many of the students and many of the staff have a military background. I’d say well over 25 percent have some sort of military affiliation. 

And they get it! We get calls all the time from faculty. “Hey, I have this student. How can I help them?” To me, this is the real sign of the military friendly college. We don’t get everything right, and we are not perfect but we always try and do the right thing for our students. I think we have built systems and a culture at Pikes Peak Community College to best support our military and veteran students. I think or hope in the future we can export that out to all the colleges in the community college system. 

And we have tried to start to do that. We created a group focused on military and veteran affiliated students across all the colleges—it’s a functional group now recognized by the system. We get together periodically and help all the other colleges with their programs as well. We share our best practices with them. Now we’re not only helping Pikes Peak students, but we’re helping students throughout the community college system. We have linked in with the Colorado Department of Higher Education and shared best practices. Eventually, we can export the things we’re doing, not only in the community college system, but with everyone. 

DZ: That is one of my goals with SITREP, our new military arts journal here at PPCC. Because PPCC is such a military friendly campus, but there are so many institutions that have service personnel and veterans who have stories to tell that are important historical artifacts. There is a strong military student and community contingent across Colorado that we need to hear from. 

Director DeCecco: SITREP is a great example of how we can reach out to the community. We have a partnership with the Expressive Arts Program here at PPCC, but we are also partners with the Military Arts Connection program of Colorado Springs. We’re one of the pilot organizations, so our students can have art experiences with artists in the Pikes Peak region for free. 

One of the other questions you asked in your pre-interview questionnaire was, “What is your role?”  I believe the role of MVP is to create an environment within the department and the college for the best support for our military and veteran-affiliated students. But I think we have another informal role or rather an opportunity, that since a lot of the students we get are coming right out of the military, we can potentially facilitate their transition out of the military and into civilian life. That means doing things beyond just military and veteran folks – involving the military or veteran student with the entire community. A good example is our partnership with you Dana during our Veterans Day activities with your Presentation series. Or the partnership with EAP and activities like Combat Paper—they include all students, not just veterans, as you know. You had whole classrooms participating at your Veterans Day programming for example. I think that’s important for the college – that what we do is inclusive of everyone – staff, faculty and student, military, and veteran or not, to be able to have that experience together. Then we gain an appreciation for everybody. 

That’s the sign of a real military friendly college. 

DZ: Thanks for taking time to discuss the MVP program with me. 

Director DeCecco: Glad to do it!