After two combat tours, University of South Alabama student PAVEs way forward for other veterans

“Everybody reacts to trauma differently,” said Zack Aggen. He reacts by helping.

Aggen knows a lot about trauma. As a U.S. Army medic during two combat tours in Iraq, he saw terrible wounds, heard horrifying screams of pain and worked desperately to save the lives of the fellow soldiers who had become, in his word, “family.”

Aggen also remembers a quieter but still agonizing trauma: feeling “lost and hopeless” as he transitioned from the structured intensity of his military career to a baffling civilian life where none of the skills he’d learned seemed of any use.

“When I first got back,” he said, “I went from putting in chest tubes and bandaging amputations to the only job I could find, which was as a patient care tech at St. Vincent’s hospital in Birmingham. I went from saving people’s lives to changing bedpans.”

Now a second-year medical student at the University of South Alabama, Aggen managed to find his way to a future he envisioned on his hardest days. A little guidance from someone who had been where he’d been would have made it a lot easier.

So that’s what he now provides. He tutors and mentors a half-dozen undergraduates as part of a national program called Peer Advisors for Veteran Education. PAVE, which began as a pilot program in 2012, operates out of the University of Michigan. It now has 46 partner campuses. In September 2019, the University of South Alabama became the first campus in Alabama.

Joshua Missouri, South’s coordinator of veterans affairs (and a Navy veteran himself), runs South’s PAVE program. The University has about 350 students who are veterans or service members. When Missouri proposed that South sign on with PAVE, he said, “We got institutional support almost immediately. We got funding. That shows the commitment from the university to serve veterans.”

PAVE is a low-key, all-volunteer program. Aggen is one of a half-dozen or so peer advisers at South. They’re military veterans who have already experienced at least a year or two of campus life. They’re trained to support incoming veterans who are just starting college.

Aggen tutors in math and science, listens if the undergrads want to talk, gives them tips about campus services and outside organizations that might be a good fit and even recommends babysitters and local schools. Whatever they need.

As a medical student, he’s paired with undergraduates in health fields. Two-thirds are women. To them, he represents someone who understands. Even now, 11 years after leaving the Army, “There are very few people I will talk to things about,” he said. “Mostly it’s other service members. It’s hard to open up to people who aren’t service connected in some way.”

He makes sure to check in regularly. “The thing I’m really sensitive to is veteran suicides. I’ve had several friends who have killed themselves. And so being another advocate for guys who may be struggling, that’s what’s important to me.”

Aggen spent four and a half years with the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, which was based in Germany during his service. In 2004-05 and 2006-07, he was deployed to Iraq. In 2007, as part of the increase in troop strength known as “the surge,” his battalion suffered the most combat deaths of any Europe-based U.S. military brigade in Iraq.

After he left the Army in 2008, he lived down the street from a police station in Birmingham. “Every time their siren would kick off, it would make a sound like an incoming mortar,” he said. “I would freeze. It went on for a year before I finally got used to it.”

He started college that year at the University of Alabama in Birmingham and graduated in 2011 with a degree in molecular biology. He had already taken a couple of college classes while in the service. He squeezed the rest into three years because GI Bill education benefits end after 36 months.

At UAB, he met the woman who became his wife. Dr. Ashlen Aggen is now a family medicine physician in Bayou La Batre, a half-hour south of the USA campus. The Aggens have three children, boys who are 11 and 5, and a 1-year-old girl.

After Ashlen’s graduation from UAB, South accepted her into medical school and, later, residency. Zack took advantage of an Alabama program that fast-tracks high school teaching certificates for holders of college math or science degrees. He taught for seven years, supporting his wife through her medical training.

Then it was his turn. Aggen, now 34, finally has an opportunity to fulfill a promise he made to himself during his medic days to learn everything he can about medicine. He and his wife would like to work together to meet the medical needs of an underserved community like Bayou La Batre. They haven’t figured out all the details.

“She does family medicine, so she can do the cradle-to-the-grave care,” Zack said. “So things that I might do are obstetrics or general surgery or something else that’s needed out there. I don’t know yet, really.”

Meanwhile, he’s helping with the PAVE program, organizing rural healthcare initiatives, carrying out the duties associated with being president of his class, coaching a special needs baseball team, and helping care for his three kids.

“I’m just one of those people who can’t take his foot off the gas,” he said.

And what keeps him from crashing and burning, like too many other combat veterans? “The honest answer is my wife. She met me when I was still recovering from that experience and chose to stay with me even though I was a mess. She’s still supporting me as I get through my medical training. I wouldn’t be where I am without her.”

Most veterans don’t have an Ashlen. Most who go to college don’t fit in with students just out of high school.

Missouri, South’s veterans’ affairs coordinator gives an example: People fresh out of the military tend to speak directly, even bluntly, “They mean well,” he said. “But it’s not interpreted that way sometimes. So they need help with those soft skills.”

And when they need help with academic skills, Aggen said, “It’s tough to sit there and be tutored by some 19-year-old kid with no life experiences. It’s hard to relate.

“But if you’ve got this gruffer, tatted-up old dude who happens to be good at whatever you’re struggling at, it helps. Then it’s like, I don’t feel so different.”

(Courtesy of the University of South Alabama)

32 mins ago

State Sen. Whatley predicts Auburn, Alabama football ‘will go on as originally planned’ despite COVID-19 spike

With 37 days to go until Auburn and Alabama both kick off the 2021 football season, COVID-19 is creeping back into the picture of everyday American life.

However, State Sen. Tom Whatley (R-Auburn), whose district includes Auburn University and an economy that relies in some part on the annual football season, said he was not expecting any disruptions resulting from COVID-19.

During an interview with Mobile radio FM Talk 106.5, Whatley said he expected all of Alabama’s Division I colleges to play as planned and touted the vaccine passport ban passed by the legislature and signed into law by Gov. Kay Ivey earlier this year.

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“Back to Senator Orr’s bill that I supported, I think that one puts it into perspective — you know, you can’t do that,” he said. “You can’t require a vaccine passport. And I think that the football will go on as originally planned. Auburn and Alabama said they are both planning on full open tailgating and full open football season. I’m looking forward to that and I’m looking forward to that economic boost that will hit Lee County, hit East Alabama, hit the whole state of Alabama once you pour in all the colleges and universities that play Division I football.”

Whatley also predicted it was a “foregone conclusion” Auburn would go 12-0, play for the SEC Championship and play in the college football playoff on the way to winning the national championship under new head football coach Bryan Harsin.

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University and the University of South Alabama, the editor of Breitbart TV, a columnist for Mobile’s Lagniappe Weekly, and host of Mobile’s “The Jeff Poor Show” from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. on FM Talk 106.5.

14 hours ago

Birmingham-Southern College to impose fee on unvaccinated students

Unless students of Birmingham-Southern College are vaccinated against COVID-19, those who attend the private liberal arts school will be forced to pay a $500 fee “to offset continual weekly antigen testing and quarantining.”

In an email sent to students, the college announced its pandemic protocols for those returning to campus for the fall semester. In what appears to be an effort to encourage students to receive the vaccine, BSC told students it will levy a monetary charge against those who are unvaccinated. The school cited the need for funding to be applied toward COVID-related mitigation measures as a reason for the charge.

The email reads in part, “Due to the lack of federal funds for pandemic precautions this term, all students will initially be charged $500 for the fall term to offset continual weekly antigen testing and quarantining. Students who are fully vaccinated prior to the beginning of fall term will receive an immediate $500 rebate.”

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The college announced in the email that it has also set separate move-in dates for vaccinated and unvaccinated students.

The College Republican Federation of Alabama (CRFA) has condemned the move as discriminatory against students who have chosen not to receive the vaccine.

“The College Republican Federation of Alabama condemns this obvious attack on students who are not vaccinated,” says CRFA chairman Clint Reid. “While vaccines are an important tool in the fight against COVID-19 we are still a free society where one should not be held at ransom to the tune of $500 if they do not feel the vaccine is the best course of action for them. We call on Birmingham-Southern College to drop this outrageous fee.”

The college’s email goes on to direct students who have been immunized against the virus to complete a “Vaccination Report Form.” BSC stated that the school’s goal is to achieve an 85% vaccination rate among students, faculty and staff.

Portion of the email sent to BSC students as follows obtained by Yellowhammer News: 

Birmingham-Southern College did not respond to a request for comment. Yellowhammer News has inquired with the Attorney General’s Office regarding the legality of BSC’s guidelines and will provide updates accordingly.

Dylan Smith is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @DylanSmithAL

14 hours ago

Tim James: A house divided against itself cannot stand

Last week the discussion of COVID vaccination burst into the news and ripped the scab right off the wound exposing the divide among Alabamians about whether to vaccinate or not. We all know there can be tense moments among friends and family when the vaccine topic comes up especially when there are differing opinions in the room.

Well, last week the discussion hit a fever pitch on a grand scale and landed on the front pages of the national news outlets. According to news reports, in Alabama, there are about 2.5 to 3 million people that have CHOSEN NOT to take the vaccine out of the state’s population of 5.1 million. Approximately 60% of all Alabamians have made this their personal health choice.

I am writing this letter today to express my distaste for those bent on shaming people in which they disagree on the vaccine issue. They divide Alabamians into two classes: the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. The media’s contempt is in overdrive for anyone that dares to disagree and not blindly follow the government directives. So, they shame by spewing their poison proclaiming the unvaccinated are the problem. Their assertion of “Blame” by extension means the unvaccinated are responsible for the spread of COVID. If you want to blame someone or something, blame the virus and the makers of it. As everybody knows, it was not the bats.

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The problem is not the unvaccinated, but rather those spawning division among the population. It’s the BLAME GAME.

They shake their fingers in the face of millions of Alabama citizens for refusing to take the vaccine and are beside themselves when everyone does not fall in line like sheep. I guess the unvaccinated are the “New Deplorables.”

I’ve listened to their shaming long enough and felt it was time to stand up for millions of Alabamians that have made their decision, over the many months, NOT to take the vaccine. I fall into this category; however, like most families I have family members that have chosen TO take the vaccine. Alabamians know full well what is going on in their communities, local hospitals, nursing homes and churches. They are not ignorant to the medical realities and associated risks. Neither are they reckless or selfish.

Every unvaccinated person has considered whether to take the vaccine for months. They have discussed the matter with others, prayed about it and even may have tolled back and forth on the decision. In the end, their “call” was to not take the vaccine for their own personal reasons. I can’t help but wonder why so many vaccinated people lecture everyone else when they themselves have marginal health risk as they are the vaccinated class.

Has it occurred to them that their shaming is certain to follow children into the classroom in the form of bullying? Do they care about young women in childbearing years who are rightfully cautious about what goes into their bodies? It’s ironic that people that CHOOSE NOT to take the vaccine are labeled dissenters even though they are the majority in Alabama and cross all races and political lines.

Going forward I want to encourage people to take a deep breath and stand back from the situation. COVID, of course can be lethal, but at the same time the odds of fatality are extremely low. This is one of those times when we must not succumb to fear. Fear is the root from which anxiety and worry bud.

Fear is a weapon used to manipulate the public, and the press is its enabler. The Lord speaks to the issue of fear through the Apostle Paul. “For God hath not given a spirit of fear but of power and sound mind” – 2 Timothy 1:7

I also would like to take this opportunity to say something about Governor Ivey’s statement last week concerning unvaccinated Alabamians. She said, “It’s time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks, not the regular folks. It’s the unvaccinated folks that are letting us down.”

The unvaccinated people represent approximately 60% of the population in our state. The Governor’s comments triggered uncontrollable elation and gaiety from politicians and news anchors at CNN, NBC and others. As one could expect, President Biden and Dr. Fauci were ecstatic at Alabamians being scolded by their Governor over this issue. I believe the Governor’s comments were off-base. I also believe she likely misspoke in the heat of the moment; something any of us could do. As we navigate forward, we need to lower the tone and not take the bait of those whose goal is to sow seeds of division amongst Alabamians.

I have a message for the American press corps concerning their hysterical, fear-based coverage of the pandemic.

It’s a quote from Edward R. Murrow, the great broadcast journalist during the first half of the 20th century.

He effectively warned his fellow journalists what would happen if the free press became compromised. He wrote: “No one can terrorize a whole nation unless we are his accomplices.”

Tim James, the son of former Gov. Fob James, is a Greenville, Alabama businessman. He was a 2010 GOP candidate for governor.

15 hours ago

Regions names Jason Isbell senior vice president of state government affairs and economic development

Regions Bank has tapped one of the state’s foremost experts on banking law and government affairs to serve as senior vice president of state government affairs and economic development.

Jason Isbell comes to the Birmingham-based bank brandishing nearly two decades of legal and government affairs experience in the public and private sectors.

Elizabeth Taylor, head of government affairs and economic development for Regions, highlighted Isbell’s depth of knowledge and relationships throughout the industry.

“Regions Bank has a strong history of working with government leaders and other stakeholder groups on issues impacting our associates, customers and communities,” Taylor said in a statement to Yellowhammer News. “Jason Isbell brings a wealth of knowledge and experience on a variety of financial services matters to this role. His work building relationships and navigating a myriad of legislative issues will serve us well. We look forward to his service advancing economic development opportunities that move our communities forward while also building on the strong relationships we have in the areas Regions serves.”

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Isbell most recently worked with Maynard Cooper & Gale where he represented a wide array of clients, including Regions, as an attorney and lobbyist in the firm’s Government Solutions Group.

Prior to his time at Maynard Cooper, he held the position of vice president for legal and governmental affairs at the Alabama Bankers Association (ABA). Isbell was charged with implementing ABA’s legislative and regulatory agendas at both the state and federal levels. He honed his skills in public policy during his 11 years in state government, first as a fiscal analyst for the Alabama Legislative Fiscal Office and then as general counsel to the Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Isbell is a member of the Faulkner University board of trustees and is a graduate of the school’s Thomas Goode Jones School of Law.

Regions Financial Corporation recently reported $748 million in second quarter earnings. The company cited strategic decisions in high-growth areas, such as Florida, Texas and Tennessee, as contributing to those earnings.

Isbell noted the momentum of the bank’s growth and influence throughout its footprint as he prepares for this new endeavor.

“I’m excited to represent an institution with such a rich history and stellar reputation,” he told Yellowhammer News. “Regions Bank is poised to continue making a positive impact on communities in Alabama and beyond. I’m grateful for this opportunity and look forward to being part of the Regions team.”

Isbell is set to officially join the bank in mid-August.

RELATED: Joia M. Johnson appointed to Regions board of directors

Tim Howe is an owner of Yellowhammer Multimedia

16 hours ago

State Rep. Wes Allen: Biden administration’s mixed message on COVID shows he doesn’t put Americans first

The Biden administration is issuing warnings to Americans regarding the increasing number of COVID cases across the country. Calls for a return to mask-wearing and social distancing are becoming more frequent from the President and his advisors.

Businesses, large and small, fear the possibility of mandated shutdowns that plagued our nation last year. Parents are wondering if they will be forced to face the inadequacies and challenges of remote schooling again. These are all worries that are being forced upon law-abiding, tax-paying Americans by the Biden administration.

But it goes further. Our northern border with Canada remains closed to non-essential travel for fear of spreading the virus. Biden and his team cited concerns over the Delta variant as the reason for banning travel from 26 nations including most of Europe, South Africa and Brazil.

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This all seems like a concerned President who is trying to save our nation from the death and damage of a pandemic. But a closer look at Biden’s policies proves that his concern is not for Americans and he has little to no desire to stop the spread of COVID from coming across our border.

His policy that allows thousands of illegal immigrants to move freely across our southern border and into our towns, neighborhoods, restaurants and schools without any regard for their immigration status or their COVID test results prove that the Biden administration doesn’t care about America or Americans. Is the health of Americans, the success of our economy and the fate of our schools and health care system of any concern to this President or his advisors?

I think not.

State Rep. Wes Allen is a Republican candidate for Alabama Secretary of State.