Veterans Feature Photo 1
Gage McClean-Coyer works refueling aircraft and maintaining fuel storage facilities in the United Arab Emirates during a deployment in 2012. McClean-Coyer served in the U.S. Air Force from 2010-13. Today McClean-Coyer attends UW-River Falls, where he is set to graduate with a master’s degree in school counseling in December. Contributed photo.

A call to service: UW-River Falls veterans reflect on their time in the military

Military tenures helped prepare for life as students, afterward, veterans say

Nov. 8, 2023 - As Gage McClean-Coyer reflects on the meaning of Veterans Day, he is struck by a mix of emotions. 

On Nov. 11 – Veterans Day – McClean-Coyer, who is set to graduate with a master’s degree in school counseling from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls in December, will recall the friends he served with in the U.S. Air Force, where he was an airman first class from 2010-13. He spent most of that time in Germany and the United Arab Emirates, driving a fuel truck, maintaining large fuel storage facilities and working in a fuels lab. 

He will ponder difficult memories and experiences he wishes he could forget. He will reflect on the sacrifices of military members before and after him. And he will focus on his good fortune, the opportunity to go to college and experience life. 

“I am reminded of my personal journey and sacrifice as well as my friends I served alongside,” McClean-Coyer said. “Veterans Day also reminds me of how lucky I am to have a life after the military.”

McClean-Coyer, 33, of Eau Claire, is among 114 UWRF students who have served or are serving in the military. University faculty and staff also are military veterans. As veterans, they bring a perspective to the classroom and workplace that influences how they approach school, their jobs and life. A public program to honor veterans is at 11 a.m. Thursday in the Falcon’s Nest in the University Center, 501 Wild Rose Ave., River Falls. 

Student, faculty and staff veterans said their experiences in the military have helped shape their lives more than they could have imagined. Josh Brauer has been in the U.S. Army Reserve as a cargo specialist for six years. A junior from Waukesha who is double majoring in journalism and political science, he said his military experience has altered his approach to life. Veterans Feature Photo 2

“Timeliness, respect and honesty are paramount in how I conduct myself on and off campus, which I attribute to the military,” Brauer said. “My personal experiences during my service constantly shape my actions and the way I think.”

Brauer’s time in the service also has resulted in his not taking life for granted, he said, and has taught him to be grateful for all he has. His adjustment from military life to attending college was challenging, he said, and at times he felt distant from his college peers because he has had experiences they can’t relate to. 

However, Brauer said he found a sense of belonging through faculty and staff who helped him navigate difficulties and find his place at UW-River Falls. The university’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program helped Brauer befriend others on a similar path to his, he said.  

“I’ve gained an immense source of gratitude for life as a student, and I walk to class every day thankful to be here and learn from my professors and peers,” he said. 

Joe Kmiech served in the U.S. Army and Minnesota Army National Guard where he was an artillery fire direction controller and a man portable air defense gunner from 1989-98. Today he heads the UWRF Information and Technology Department and said his time in the military prepared him for life in ways he was not aware of at the time. Joe Kmiech

He learned to work with an array of people from many different backgrounds, he said, and how to handle high-pressure situations while remaining calm. His military service also taught Kmiech organizational skills and how to be self-motivated, he said. 

“Though none of my military jobs related directly to anything I do today, the skills I learned were transferable to any workplace and life in general,” Kmiech said. 

As veterans services coordinator at UW-River Falls, Cheryl Grubb recognizes the life experiences through military service that student veterans bring to campus. As she watches student veterans interact in a lounge in Rodli Hall that her office provides, Grubb said she is struck by the wealth of real-life knowledge they possess.

“Student veterans offer valuable and diverse perspectives, skills and talents to colleges and universities,” Grubb said. “(They) can enhance classroom discussions with their unique background knowledge and perspectives, developed through military and cross-cultural experience.”

Those experiences will be with Kmiech as he reflects on Veterans Day. He will think about not only the people he has served with, he said, but on those who are currently serving, and on veterans who have passed on. He also ponders the fact that because of the service of others, he can live how he wants to. 

“To me that means ‘Live a life worth the freedoms that others have earned, and kept, for me,’” Kmiech said. 

Brauer said he’s not seeking recognition on Veterans Day. Rather, he will spend the day thinking about veterans, including his father and grandfather, who served before him. 

Veterans Feature Photo 3“No matter the time frame, no matter which era veterans come from, the nature of service does not change,” Brauer said. “Whether it’s the retelling of war stories or a simple ‘Happy Veterans Day,’ just taking a second to stop and reflect on service is a must for me on Veterans Day.”

McClean-Coyer deals with difficulties related to his military service. He said he has physical and mental ailments because of his time in the Air Force. He said military service can leave participants “scarred in different ways – mind, body and spirit-wise.” 

However, he credits his service with building his confidence and work ethic, with creating friendships around the world, and with making him more resilient and better able to handle the rigors of school and ultimately graduate and work as a school counselor. 
“I would most likely do it all over again,” McClean-Coyer said in reference to his military service. “The stories, friendship, and life experiences are so valuable.”

Photo Inset 1:
UW-River Falls junior Josh Brauer, back row, fourth from right, poses with members of his military team and civilians in Afghanistan he worked with while stationed in Kabul in 2021. Brauer, a cargo specialist in the U.S. Army Reserve, said his military service has broadened his life perspective and taught him gratitude. Contributed photo.

Photo Inset 2:
Joe Kmiech headshot.

Photo Inset 3:
Gage McClean-Coyer attends UW-River Falls, where he is set to graduate with a master’s degree in school counseling in December. He said he deals with physical and mental ailments due to his time in the U.S. Air Force but credits his military service with teaching him numerous life skills and making him more resilient. Contributed photo.


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