In July 2017, Jose Aponte sat down under one of his favorite trees on the IU Southeast campus with a pistol in his hand. After 24 years serving in the U.S. Air Force and Army, Aponte had just graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism, an accomplishment that was “beyond my wildest dreams.”
Despite his achievements, Aponte struggled with PTSD, anxiety, and depression, and was contemplating suicide. “I had been requesting to speak with a counselor at the VA for three years and they kept saying, ‘We’ll get you a referral.’”
That referral never came. But help did appear, striding toward Aponte as he sat under the tree, in the form of Sgt. Deven Estes, an IU Southeast police officer and fellow veteran whom Aponte had sat next to during commencement a few months prior. Immediately following the incident, Aponte found the help he needed—and in the process, his true calling.
A new lease on life
Flash forward five years to the summer of 2022. Aponte has earned his second degree from IU Southeast—a master’s in mental health counseling—and he’s fresh off a six-month leadership development program with the National Veterans Leadership Foundation.
Aponte was selected as one of 11 students from across the country in the Foundation’s inaugural class of fellows. Their goal: to develop and implement programming on their campuses that can help address the unique needs of veterans.
“When I got to IU Southeast, I really just had to figure things out on my own,” Aponte said. “I went through all the road bumps: not knowing how to apply for FAFSA or where to find my VA benefits, but I figured it out. If I can help other vets do the same, I’m paying it forward so they can benefit from it in the future.”
Aponte pays it forward
Aponte is working with IU Southeast, IU Kokomo, and others to create paid positions for liaisons that veterans could rely on to navigate the collegiate experience and access the academic, financial, and mental health resources they need to thrive.
“The hardest part for IU Southeast and other regional campuses is that, because they have so many commuter students, it’s hard to create a community on campus that extends from one group of students to the next,” Aponte said. “There are plenty of passionate people who want to get involved; they just need a way to do so that will endure once students graduate.”
Aponte’s work with IU is based on the Ohio State University’s Major Lawrence Miller Military Community Advocates (MCA) program, through which military-connected students help their designated school or unit understand the needs of their veteran student population, while simultaneously developing programs that serve as outreach to their fellow veterans on campus. MCA currently has 29 active advocates across the Ohio State University system. Aponte hopes to grow the advocate pool at IU to similar numbers one day.
In addition to continuing his work with IU, Aponte plans to enroll in an equine therapy certificate program and one day open his own practice. He sees it all as part of his life mission, one made clear to him on a summer day in 2017, under a tree at IU Southeast.
“A lot of friends of mine who are veterans are drawn to horses because of their peaceful nature,” Aponte said. “It’s a very healing thing to do to care for something else. We try to care for ourselves all the time, but it’s deeper when you meet something else’s needs.”
To help veterans across all Indiana University campuses, make a gift to the Military and Veterans Services fund. Or contact John Summerlot, university coordinator, IU Military & Veteran Services, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 812-855-6609.
This article was originally published in the 2022 issue of Imagine magazine.