Jesse McCrary, a Marine combat veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and student in the College of Education and Health Professions, is still basking in the glow of being honored for his service at the first home football game of the Arkansas Razorbacks. The young man, who walked onto the field amid an arch of sabers presented by the University of Arkansas Army and Air Force ROTC units, grew up in Flippin, Arkansas, before joining the Marine Corps where he served five years.
“It was a really cool experience to look up and see all those faces in the stands in all that red and white,” he says, “ it made me feel really proud to be honored at the game.”
Erika Gamboa, Director of the Veterans Resource & Information Center at the university says McCrary was humble when he received word he had been chosen for the honor. “He said why me? There are so many other vets who’ve given up more than I have,” Gamboa says. Not only was McCrary the first veteran of the season to receive the tribute, it was his first time to attend a Razorback football game. Gamboa laughs and says, “He hasn’t missed a home game since.” She says Razorback Athletics will continue to recognize veterans like McCrary, at home games throughout the season for their patriotic sacrifice to protect our Nation and our values.
McCrary, who served in the Marines in Afghanistan, was an electronics expert, but says he didn’t find that field particularly fulfilling. It was while attending a friend’s wedding in Chicago, which gave him a new career focus.
“My friend came from a long line of nurses and they began recruiting me, so to speak,” he says, “and I began doing some research and the nursing profession looked to be a good fit.” McCrary says he had remembered helping a couple of military buddies when they had suffered some minor injuries and he knew it felt good to help. He says he was ready to find a career that was both rewarding and secure.
Jesse returned to Arkansas and enrolled in the University of Arkansas in January 2016, to join what he recognized as “one of the highest-rated nursing programs around.” A first generation college student, McCrary says, “The competition to become part of a nursing program with our great reputation will better prepare me to be the best nurse I can be.” With his second semester underway, Jesse is already earning accolades for making both the Dean’s and Chancellor’s Lists. He grants a good deal of the credit for his success to the Veterans Resource and Information Center on campus.
Associate Director of VRIC, Buster McCall says “Jesse is a very focused, hard-working young man who tackles education like he would tackle a military mission.” McCall says one in twenty people on campus are either a veteran or a dependent of a one. He says the VRIC is a great place for vets like McCrary to relax, be themselves and to connect with others.
“The VRIC helped me feel at home on a large campus and set me off on the right foot,” McCrary says. Fellow student Taylor Weeks, is a student who is utilizing VA educational benefits and serves as a work-study, took Jesse under his wing, showed him where his classes were and helped him navigate the campus. McCrary says getting used to the size of the university was a major adjustment, because he was used to being with a small group of fellow marines.
“Taylor walked with me to class the first day–not just the first day, but he helped me for nearly two weeks, “ he says.
“Jesse represents the focus and commitment we see from over 1,300 veterans and dependents we serve here on campus. In the short time he’s been here, he has done quite a lot, and that has included his experiencing quite a few ‘firsts.’”
For McCrary, the built-in support system for veterans who return to college, provided by VRIC, also provides a place for him to hang out with his friends, who are fellow veterans. He says many of them spend time together studying at the center, or going to work out, hiking or listening to music. McCrary, whose favorite band is “Journey,” says that sense of belonging to a group is important and has made his collegiate transition easier.
William Samuels, a fellow veteran and a new student this semester is a good friend of McCrary’s. Samuels’ wife, Rachel works at the VRIC office and she introduced the two men. Samuels says they immediately clicked because they both had served in Afghanistan. “I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t like Jesse, “he says “ he’s willing to help anybody—he’s just a great guy.” Samuels took McCrary on his first float trip in July, on War Eagle Creek in Madison County. Samuels and his wife, both accompanied McCrary to the football game when he was honored. “Jesse was real nervous before the game started and then afterwards, he was all smiles,” Samuels says about Jesse’s recognition.
“He’s one of the most hard-working individuals I’ve met,“ says Gamboa. “Some of his personal and military experiences could have prevented him from succeeding, but he was able to turn them into a positive experience and they have made him stronger.” She says Jesse’s resilience, loyalty and dedication have played a key role in maintaining both his friendships and academic record.
“I think as vets, we have discipline coming into college,” McCrary says of his experience at the university so far. “I think we’re less likely to take risks and are very goal-oriented.” However as Samuels puts it, if McCrary has a fault it may be that he’s too dedicated. “Sometimes on weekends, he says he’s too busy studying to come out and have some fun,” Samuels says, “ of course because I’m a recreation and sports management major, I think he needs more balance and that means having a good time.”
Gamboa says, “Jesse represents the focus and commitment we see from over 1,300 veterans and dependents we serve here on campus. “ In the short time he’s been here, he has done quite a lot, “ she says, “and that has included his experiencing quite a few ‘firsts.’”