United they serve
*Editors note: This story was adjusted to correct the residence of a source.
Throughout its history, Southeast has had a strong veteran presence. From having one of the highest veteran populations in the state in the 1970s to establishing an Air Force ROTC program to creating a program that prepares National Guardsman for Officer Candidate School, Southeast’s veteran support and involvement has been present for decades.
In honor of Veterans Day on Nov. 11, the Arrow sat down with four Southeast alumni who have served in the military to hear their stories. From Vietnam to the present day, a lot has changed in the military, but Southeast’s support of the military and its veteran alumni seems ever present.
A Cape Girardeau native and Notre Dame Regional High School Bulldog, Thomas Meyer chose to stay local for school and began at Southeast in 1967 to study business administration.
When friends of his began to get selected for the draft, Meyer knew it was only a matter of time until his number got selected and he wanted to determine his own fate. So, in 1969, he enlisted as a Navy Seabee.
When someone is drafted, the military chooses which branch the individual goes into with a lottery system. When someone enlists on his or her own, however, they get full choice of which branch to go into, which is why Meyer ultimately decided to enlist.
Meyer chose the Seabees because of the experience the branch offered. A subset of the Navy, the Seabees are a construction battalion that serves both combat and non-combat missions.
“The Army engineers are different, they go in after the fact — we usually went in during the fighting or before the fighting to establish the bases that we needed out in the jungles,” Meyer said. “[The Seabees] are a hybrid between the Marines and the Navy.”
The biggest draw of the Seabees for Meyer was the experience he could gain. Meyer figured anything he learned with the Seabees could help him later in life as well. Meyer went on to own a realty business and still does to this day.
“I felt like I was coming back out with a potential trade,” Meyer said. “I came back with something that gave me reference to development, construction and a lot of good background information that I wanted to pursue. I came back with something of real value.”
After serving a three-year contract, Meyer got out of the service in 1972 and returned to Southeast to finish his degree. While he was at Southeast, he joined the SEMO Vet Corps in 1967.
Meyer’s Southeast connection didn’t stop there, as he eventually returned to the university in 2011 on the board of regents, serving until 2018. While on the board, Meyer helped kickstart the Student Veterans Organization and has been an advocate for the Veteran’s Plaza between Memorial Hall and Academic Hall.
Following their parent’s footsteps, all of Meyer’s children have graduated from Southeast as well, although none went into real estate like he had.
Meyer is still active with the SEMO Vet Corps and currently resides in Cape Girardeau.
Norman “Buzz” Thompson grew up in Cape Girardeau but attended Cape Girardeau Central High School. Thompson began school at Southeast in 1965 and picked up his fourth degree from the university in 1988.
But much like Meyer, Thompson knew he would be drafted and wanted to choose his own course.
Thompson said he weighed out a few branches and eventually chose to enlist in the Navy as they offered him delayed entry. He was able to sign his papers but not leave for boot camp for four months, allowing him to finish the semester.
Thompson served three years, 10 months, 11 days, 10 hours, 42 minutes — a number he confidently rattled off without blinking. He said it would be more accurate but his watch didn’t have a second hand.
He jokingly noted his most memorable moments of service were the day he enlisted and the day he got out.
All jokes aside, Thompson said he was happy and proud he served and was part of the creation of the SEMO Vet Corps along with Meyer.
Thompson noted the large veteran population at Southeast’s campus in the 1970s — roughly 700 of the university’s 7,000 students were veterans of the war. This was partially because of the cheap cost of tuition and the veteran-friendly community.
Part of the reason the Vet Corps was created was to give this large group of veterans a group in which to belong.
By the time they returned from war, most were over the age of 21 and didn’t necessarily fit into the local Greek organizations at the time. The Vet Corps acted as a fraternity for them.
Thompson’s first degree from the university was in earth science, but he later returned with a passion to be an educator. Thompson eventually finished with four degrees from the university and was an educator at Woodland Elementary School from 1979 to 1983, and then taught in the Jackson School District from 1983 until 2003.
“That earth science degree, when you’re teaching little kids, is really helpful because they’re really curious,” Thompson said. “They’ll bring you rocks and sticks and bugs and the earth science degree was really well suited to help answer those questions.”
His wife as well as two of his three kids have received degrees from Southeast, and he currently resides in Jackson.
Joining the Army National Guard in 1981 as a 17-year-old, Robert Wake wanted to serve his country on the basis of pride. He said he was proud to serve the United States and wanted to give what he could to his country.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, Wake reenlisted into the Army on the active duty side in 2003 to serve.
In Iraq in 2004, a mortar bomb landed between Wake and a medic. He spent the next 13 months recovering from the blast, including injuries to his teeth, nose, ears, knee and ankle.
The shrapnel from the blast also tore into his frontal lobe, leaving him without many of his childhood memories.
When Wake officially got out of the military in 2010, he received a full pension from the Army, affording him the opportunity to start the Wake Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports veterans.
The Wake Foundation promotes social and outdoor events to assist in the rehabilitation process for veterans and helps support veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder among other physical injuries.
Each year, the Wake Foundation sponsors a variety of outdoor events throughout the country geared toward assisting military personnel and wounded veterans realize there is life after combat and to find some sort of “normalcy” in their lives.
Wake decided he wanted to pursue a degree in public relations to better serve his foundation and searched for universities that would best serve that purpose. He discovered Southeast was the best opportunity for him.
In 2017, Wake attended Southeast and went on to graduate in May 2019. He said coming to Southeast for public relations was “the best decision I ever made,” as it helped him serve his foundation better than ever before.
Wake currently resides in Bloomfield, Missouri.
Michelle Lang was born in Olongapo, Philippines and moved to the United States when she was eight years old.
Lang moved all over the United States as her father was in the Navy. Eventually she moved to the Midwest, living in the Chicago area before moving to Southern Illinois.
Never really having an interest in attending school, Lang wanted to join the military. When she discovered she would only be able to receive her GI Bill if she attended school, she began searching for universities.
Elizabeth Sweet, a grade-school friend and member of the National Guard, recruited Lang to join Southeast’s Show Me GOLD program, an officer preparatory program at the university. Lang said the opportunity seemed like a no-brainer, so she enlisted and came to Southeast.
Although Lang only remained in the program for three semesters, she took what she learned and moved on to a different unit where she eventually earned the rank of sergeant.
Lang said she was thankful for the GOLD program for bringing her to Southeast, as she “loved her time” at the university.
For two years Lang worked at the Office of Military and Veterans Services (OMVS) and learned how to connect with people during her time there.
“Before it was hard to go and talk to people in the military,” Lang said. “At the office, I found myself reaching out and making connections with so many military members.”
Her time at Southeast and at the OMVS helped her become more comfortable networking and meeting people, and she said that is one of the things she is most thankful for while she has been at the university.
Lang is set to graduate from Southeast in December with a degree in biology and is in the process of transferring to active duty, where she will be stationed at Fort Hood, Texas.