As a member of the U.S. Army reserves, Alex “Red” Bittner often thinks of a phrase he and his comrades said in the barracks: Leave something better than you found it.
Bittner, who also serves as the assistant director of admissions at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, said he aspires to live by that phrase when it comes to creating a more supported experience for student-veterans on campus, something that’s close to his heart.
“I want to make sure that whoever fills my role has something with a great foundation they can build upon,” said Bittner. “That mentality carries on through everything I do.”
The foundations of SITREP
In 2012, Bittner enrolled in classes at Pitt-Greensburg after serving two years in the military. But he found the resources for student-veterans lacking.
“The only resources student-veterans had were each other,” said Bittner. “We had help with certification of benefits and the G.I. Bill, but there was no official, in-depth support system.”
Fast forward to 2017, Bittner landed a role in the admissions office at Pitt-Greensburg. Lisa Reffner, data and registrar specialist and veterans’ service contact at Pitt-Greensburg had already been seeking to expand the visibility of the programs she administers and the services offered to veterans.
“It’s a big deal when you come from active duty to school,” said Reffner, who is also a veteran of the U.S. Air Force. “The military gives you a lot of good tools like discipline and adaptability, but the majority of veterans come onto campus much older than their peers. There’s that generational gap.”
After an onsite meeting with Edwin Hernandez, then-president of the Office of Veterans’ Services on the Pittsburgh campus, Reffner and Bittner teamed up to evaluate the program and better support military and veteran students. That partnership resulted in a robust military and veterans’ program that supports student-veterans as they transition to civilian life. Known as SITREP (Service, Initiative, Transition, Resource, Education and Partnership), the program is the first of its kind at Pitt-Greensburg. The program’s name is short for “situation report” in the military.
“This was all happening at the same time that the ROTC program was being re-established on campus. It was the perfect convergence of all the right people at the right time to leap ahead,” said Elizabeth Tiedemann, director of advising and registrar at Pitt-Greensburg. “What Red and Lisa have accomplished in two years is phenomenal.”
First of its kind
According to Reffner, there are approximately 45-50 self-identified student-veterans enrolled at Pitt-Greensburg per semester.
That includes Jacob Snyder, a 20-year military retiree whose deployments include three combat tours in Afghanistan, one combat tour in Iraq, an operational peacekeeping deployment to Kosovo and an assignment to Turkey. He is currently working toward a degree in history and plans to apply for graduate school in 2021.
The goal of SITREP, said Reffner, is to help students like Snyder feel supported from the moment they’re admitted to Pitt-Greensburg, and to create a more cohesive campus community. Last year, the team received a Pitt Seed Grant to help enhance the program.
Snyder said, especially during his first semester, he spent many hours in Reffner’s office learning about the resources offered to student-veterans and how they can get involved in the student-veteran community. “She was a godsend that first semester helping me with paperwork and what I needed to do,” said Snyder, who was recently given a Student Veteran Leadership Award by G.I. Jobs Magazine.
“My door is always open,” said Reffner. “When Red [Bittner] was a student, you handed in your paperwork and then left. Now, they always know where to find Red and me.
With SITREP, we’re giving our student-veterans support to make them feel a part of the community, but we also want to help people on campus learn more about their experiences.
To Bittner, as a 2016 Pitt grad, it was especially important that SITREP involved programming to help bridge the gap of understanding between student-veterans and the rest of campus, including faculty and staff.
“There’s a cultural difference in understanding a lot of the time,” said Bittner.
Reffner agreed. “With SITREP, we’re giving our student-veterans support to make them feel a part of the community, but we also want to help people on campus learn more about their experiences."
Each semester, SITREP hosts student panels, breakfasts and training sessions on a variety of military and veteran topics, including learning challenges, accommodations and post-traumatic stress disorder. According to Bittner, there are also special sessions for faculty and staff. With the help of the Pitt Seed Grant, these events have become more enhanced and robust.
“It’s about breaking bread, forming community and having discussions,” said Reffner. “We’re talking about things that affect how veterans learn, succeed and approach life.”
A favorite SITREP memory of Snyder’s was during Veterans Week in 2019: a campus RED (Remember Everyone Deployed) Out and tabling event that featured military gear on display for people to touch and try on. “It was almost like a show and tell,” he said.
“It was Red’s idea,” said Reffner. “We had an array of heavy-duty packs and helmets that military servicemembers use out in the field. The purpose was to give students an experience they hadn’t had.”
Bittner said it’s all about exchanging experiences. “It’s a way to say, ‘Hey, we’re still human, we just have different experiences and different cultural thinking,’” he said. “We’re giving students a platform a to positively affect the community as a whole.”
Support and advocacy
To provide personalized support, Reffner said that the SITREP team conducts regular outreach to local and regional veterans’ support groups such as The Vet Center-White Oak, Veterans Leadership Program, PAServes and the Westmoreland County Food Bank’s Military Share program.
“We are active in the local veterans’ community—and we’re continuing to connect with valued resources,” said Reffner. “Instead of sending students to a 1-800 number, we can do a direct hand-off to one of our vetted partnering organizations. It can really make a difference in students taking the next step to get help if they need it.”
During the pandemic, Bittner and Reffner have continued to stay in touch with their students-veterans, providing resources across the spectrum, including help with online learning, food distribution information and recommendations for mental health services.
Bittner said he’s spent a lot of time serving as an advocate for student-veterans during the pandemic and getting in touch with faculty.
“We had several students get called out because they’re in the national guard or in the reserves. When these students get called out on an emergency 30-day order, faculty need to understand that they may not be hearing from these students,” he said.
“Part of our jobs is not just helping the students directly, but informing faculty that they need to be flexible with these students. Our students really need us as the middleman.”