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)

2 hours ago

7 Things: Alabama not last in nation on coronavirus vaccine rollout, Aderholt defends Brooks’ comments at Trump rally, Biden ready to go big with executive actions and more …

7. State Sen. Allen: Keep the Monument Preservation Act

  • As there’s more talk to repeal the Monument Preservation Act of 2017, State Senator Gerald Allen (R-Tuscaloosa) wants the focus to stay on preserving history.  
  • While on Alabama Public Television’s “Capitol Journal,” Allen said, “If you start removing things and start saying that things shouldn’t exist — I think we need to be of open mind and about how important it is to protect history.” Some have started arguing that cities and counties should have more say in monument locations. 

6. State Sen. Sanders-Fortier wants Selma to decide on Edmund Pettus Bridge name

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  • State Senator Malika Sanders-Fortier (D-Selma) plans to introduce a bill that will allow those representing Dallas County to decide if Edmund Pettus Bridge should be renamed. 
  • Back in 2015, legislation to name the bridge “Journey to Freedom Bridge” didn’t get out of committee in the Alabama House of Representatives. Renaming the bridge would also be in violation of the 2017 Memorial Preservation Act. 

5. 100 pardons by Wednesday

  • A report from CNN says that President Donald Trump plans to issue about 100 presidential pardons to people before he’s out of office this week. 
  • About 90 people have already received pardons from Trump. According to the report, Trump isn’t planning to pardon himself.

4. Biden has some ideas — a lot of them are bad

  • President-elect Joe Biden is ready to hit the ground running with a series of executive orders, presidential memoranda and directives to cabinet agencies ready to go that will signal an obvious difference from the previous administration. The American court system will probably be far less hostile to a President Biden than it was to his predecessor.
  • Part of this initial flurry of action will include rejoining the Paris Climate Accord, killing the Keystone Pipeline, the end of the travel ban, a mask mandate for federal property and interstate travel, reopening schools, immigration, racial justice, and student loan repayment.

3. Migrant caravan heading to the U.S.

  • There’s currently a caravan of migrants traveling to the United States from Honduras, and one in the caravan said they’re coming to the country because President-elect Joe Biden is “giving us 100 days to get to the U.S.”
  • Biden has said he’d pause deportations for at least the first 100 days he’s in office. He has also promised a pathway to citizenship for those in the country illegally. 

2. Ill-advised statements aren’t incitement

  • U.S. Representative Robert Aderholt (R-Haleyville) recently spoke about voting “no” on impeaching President Donald Trump and the threatened censure of U.S. Representative Mo Brooks (R-Huntsville) for his comments at the pro-Trump rally on January 6. 
  • Aderholt said that he didn’t think what Trump said “would rise to impeachment.” He added that with all of the weapons and equipment that rioters had “was something that had to be premeditated.” Aderholt went on to say that Brooks probably could’ve said what he wanted differently, adding, “I don’t think it rose to the level of inciting the violence that did occur.”

1. We aren’t last in the country

  • According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Alabama is ranking last in coronavirus vaccine distribution, but State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris is disputing this. 
  • Harris said that the reason the CDC has ranked the state last is due to them not having all the latest data. Harris did acknowledge that “we would like to be giving doses out faster than we are. We could certainly be doing a better job, and we have a lot of things we’re putting into place to do that.” 

4 hours ago

Jerry Carl: Commitment to fighting for life

On Friday of this week, our nation will recognize National Sanctity of Life Day. This tradition started when President Reagan issued a proclamation in 1984 designating January 22 as the first National Sanctity of Human Life Day. The purpose of this special day is celebrating the gift of life, remembering the lives lost to abortion, and reaffirming our commitment to protecting life from conception to natural death.

Thankfully, we have seen a decrease in the total number and rate of abortions in America. In recent years, abortions have decreased by about 25%. Much credit is due to President Trump, the most pro-life president in history, for many of these positive changes. While this is worth celebrating, there is still more work to be done. Being an advocate for pro-life policies is one of my top priorities in Congress, and I have already begun working with my colleagues on some key pieces of pro-life legislation.

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One of the bills I’m proud to co-sponsor is Rep. Virginia Foxx’s bill, The Title X Abortion Provider Prohibition Act, which amends the Public Health Service Act to prohibit the Department of Health and Human Service (HHS) from providing federal family planning grants to entities that perform abortions or provide funds to entities that perform abortions. This is a critical step to stemming the tide of abortion in our country, and I strongly believe that no taxpayer money should ever be used in support of performing an abortion.

As a nation, we must remain rooted in the fundamental truth that every life is a precious gift from God. We should also recognize and thank the many men and women who advocate for life, whether it’s supporting women dealing with unplanned pregnancies, counseling women who have had an abortion, or supporting the adoption and foster care industries. I hope you will join me this week in reaffirming our nation’s commitment to protecting life at all stages.

Jerry Carl represents Alabama’s First Congressional District. He lives in Mobile with his wife Tina.

4 hours ago

State Sen. Butler: Space Command announcement reminiscent of Huntsville reaction to 1958 Explorer launch, U.S. response to Sputnik

In 1957, the Soviet Union stunned the United States by launching Sputnik, the first manmade satellite. The news put Drs. Eberhard Rees and Wernher von Braun to work on a U.S. response at Redstone Arsenal’s Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville.

At 10:48 p.m. on January 31, 1958, the Jupiter-C lifted off from Cape Canaveral and successfully deployed Explorer I, the United States’ response to Sputnik. The news was greeted with celebratory sirens and horns in Huntsville.

Last week, the U.S. Air Force announced Huntsville was its choice for Space Command HQ. According to State Sen. Tom Butler (R-Madison), that announcement created an atmosphere much like the 1958 launch.

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(Huntsville Times, Feb. 1, 1958/NASA)

“I tell you, everybody here is just tickled to death,” he said during an interview on Mobile radio FM Talk 106.5’s “The Jeff Poor Show.” “I was here in 1958 when the Explorer went up. It was our answer to Sputnik. And the whole town at midnight — sirens were blowing, people were blowing horns up, just tickled to death. I think that same kind of atmosphere is here again. I guess we’ll have a new saying, where we’re called the Rocket City, and that’s for great purpose. Now we’ll say, ‘May the force be with you.'”

“I think it’s appropriate for winning the command center for Space Force, and we will adapt, obviously, the assets that were needed for the Space Command, are already here in Huntsville, Alabama at Redstone Arsenal,” Butler continued. “There’s plenty of land, plenty of assets at the Space Command will need. The Army Materiel Command is here. The Space Command will be here. The Army Missile Defense Command will be here. And the big one — NASA. This is where the Marshall Space Flight Center is. And we have an old saying here, too. We used to say by air and car, you couldn’t go anywhere without going through Atlanta. Well, going to outer space, you have to come through Huntsville, Alabama. We just saw that this week with the testing down at the Stennis Center, down near you, the main engining that will be lifting us to the moon in Artemis. We’re just tickled to death the way that went. Those engines are now on their way to Cape Kennedy, down at Canaveral. We’ve got a lot of interest from Huntsville here in space, and I think that helped us win the Space Command.”

18 hours ago

Alabama’s coronavirus numbers have started to go down

After rising steadily since the first week of October, new coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in Alabama have begun decreasing in recent days.

Alabama has seen a 9% decrease in hospitalized coronavirus patients over the last week. As of Monday, the state has 2,798 COVID-19 patients in the hospital, a decline of 286 from the all-time high of 3,084 recorded on January 11.

In the last week, Alabama has averaged 2,019 new COVID-19 cases per day, an enormous drop from the 3,080 per day witnessed on January 11.

The current rate of new cases is likely lower than reality due to a slowdown in reporting usually caused by a holiday weekend, but the decrease began in the early days of last week.

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Yellowhammer News refers to cases as those confirmed by a molecular test performed in a laboratory. When including results from rapid tests and other methods of COVID-19 detection, the average rises.

Clicking image opens interactive chart in new tab. (BamaTracker)

Hospitalizations, like cases, have sometimes seen rapid jumps in totals just after a holiday weekend. Again, like cases, the declines began before the holiday weekend.

Clicking image opens interactive chart in new tab. (BamaTracker)

Several Alabama counties, including Jefferson and Madison, are now considered “low risk” for coronavirus transmission by the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH).

Clicking image opens interactive map in new tab. (ADPH/Screenshot)

ADPH calculates the county risk assessments each Thursday.

The virus remains widespread in the state, even as the risk is lower than in recent months. Of Alabama’s 67 counties, 63 reported a new coronavirus case on Monday.

A metric closely watched by health officials, the percent of COVID-19 tests coming back positive for the virus each day has decreased from 31% to 23% over the last week.

Alabama’s death toll from the virus is now estimated to be 6,121.

Of those, 5,099 have been confirmed as coronavirus deaths by the Alabama Department of Public Health, and another 1,022 are considered “probable” COVID-19 deaths but have not yet been confirmed by the department.

Over the course of the pandemic, it has been rare for a probable COVID-19 death not to ultimately be certified as a coronavirus death.

Deaths reported in one week usually occurred in weeks, or even months, before being logged by APDPH. The agency has recency confirmed a large spate of coronavirus deaths, but few occurred in the week prior to the reporting.

More positively, Alabama’s vaccine distribution program has picked up pace after a slower than wished for launch.

Alabama has now administered 148,685 vaccine doses as of Monday afternoon.

The state had only given out 89,763 doses on the week ending January 9. Alabama hospitals received their first doses in the middle of December.

The federal government has now shipped 379,875 vaccine doses to Alabama, meaning that 39.14% of the state’s received doses have gone into the arms of its citizens.

Alabama has been allotted 640,150 doses of vaccine, meaning only 59.34% of the state’s promised product has been delivered as of Monday.

Both vaccines require two doses, administered three to four weeks apart, to reach their full effectiveness.

Monday, January 18, marks the first day that Alabamians age 75 and up and non-medical first responders like police officers and firefighters are eligible to receive the vaccine.

ADPH estimates there are around 350,000 citizens of the state age 75 and over. An estimate of the number of people eligible due to service as a first responder was not provided.

The state’s nursing home residents and medical workers — the initial categories slated to get the vaccine — remain eligible to do so. APDH estimates Alabama has over 300,000 health care workers.

Due to limited supply, it is likely that the vast majority of Alabamians will not be able to receive a vaccination for a few more months.

Health officials are urging continued mask-wearing and social distancing to continue mitigating the spread of the virus.

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95.

18 hours ago

Crimson Tide’s Will Anderson named National Freshman Player of the Year

University of Alabama true freshman linebacker Will Anderson, Jr. on Monday was announced as the recipient of the Shaun Alexander-FWAA National Freshman Player of the Year Award for the 2020 college football season.

The award is named for Shaun Alexander, the former Bama star running back who went on to an All-Pro NFL career with the Seattle Seahawks and Washington Football Team.

The Football Writers Association of America also named Anderson and Crimson Tide defensive back Malachi Moore to the FWAA Freshman All-America First Team.

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This comes after Anderson earned the starting job at jack linebacker during the fall. He was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team and picked up second team All-SEC honors from the Associated Press. Anderson ended up tied for second in the conference in sacks with seven while ranking third in tackles for loss at 10.5.

Meanwhile, Moore earned the starting role at star for the Tide defense. The former Hewitt-Trussville star was selected to the SEC All-Freshman Team and also picked up second team All-SEC honors from the AP and the league coaches. He led the UA defense with four forced turnovers, including a team-high three interceptions, while totaling nine passes defensed.

Retired from his playing days for the past decade, Alexander now travels the country speaking and teaching people about the things he is passionate about: his Christian faith, marriage, fatherhood, football, winning, leading and love.

RELATED: Shaun Alexander on life, love and loss — ‘We will see her again, worshiping God together’

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn