Veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces have spent years serving their country at home and abroad, and they continue supporting military communities like Fort Campbell as part of today’s civilian workforce.
Many local veterans have found their post-military careers with the Department of Defense Education Activity Americas-Southeast District, working at the installation’s schools each day to educate military children.
‘Service was always a part of my life’
Thomasa Ross, fifth grade educator at Marshall Elementary School, knew she wanted to be a classroom teacher since the second grade, and her dream became a reality after her service in the Army.
After graduating from Austin Peay State University through the ROTC program and serving in the military as an active-duty transportation officer, she began her career in education as a kindergarten teacher at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
That job grew into a 15-year career with DoDEA, and she has supported the students at Marshall Elementary School for the past five years.
“I get to come in every day and help them learn, grow into outstanding community citizens and build mastery in their skills before going to the next grade level,” Ross said. “I love just being able to see their smiling faces every day. My first-year students have graduated high school, and it’s amazing to have them reach back out to me and tell me everything I did in the classroom still matters.”
For Ross, helping students in the classroom is an extension of her military service and a way to continue giving back to the community.
“Service was always a part of my life growing up as a child, and my grandfather instilled the importance of giving back to others in my siblings and I,” she said. “And with my father being a retired first sergeant, I was around the military lifestyle, so I wanted to serve my country.”
Ross initially served as an enlisted Soldier before finishing college and becoming an officer, and she said her time in the military allowed her to build relationships that have lasted for 20 years.
“As a service member, I worked with people from different cultures and collaborated with others to achieve a common goal, which has served me well as an educator,” she said. “I look forward to coming to work each day to collaborate with my colleagues to facilitate learning for our students.”
Making a difference
Vicki Starcher, program aide, Andre Lucas Elementary School, was the first person in her Family to join the military after graduating from high school, and she has continued to serve Army Families as a program aide for Andre Lucas Elementary School since 2019.
Working with DoDEA was a natural fit for Starcher, thanks to her Army background and extensive experience working with children. As a program aide, she provides targeted instruction and assistance to students struggling in areas from math and reading to science.
“I was a child care provider out of my home after I got out of the service, and I worked with children of all ages up to 18,” she said. “I’ve always worked with children in some capacity, whether it be babysitting or taking care of them in a child care setting. I wanted to make a difference, and I relate to the military community a lot.”
Starcher served in the Army from 1987-1995 and was briefly stationed in Germany before being assigned to Fort Campbell, where she worked as a diesel mechanic and deployed during Operation Desert Storm.
“I know what it’s like to leave my daughter behind while I’m stationed overseas,” she said. “Being a parent who had a child back in the states was difficult, and now I’m in a position where I can serve the children and help them with whatever issues they may be having.”
Patience and understanding are among the most important skills for instructors working with military children, Starcher said, and she credits her time in the service with helping her build up those traits.
“To be there for the children, to teach them and to see them grow is important,” she said. “Communication is the key to everything and forming bonds with the children and seeing them grow and become productive young people is so rewarding for me.”
Inspired by students
Alesia Gladden, paraprofessional at Marshall Elementary School, has inspired students at every school on Fort Campbell since she began working on the installation as a substitute teacher in 2001.
Today, she works with third and fourth grade students to support their individual needs one-on-one or in small groups.
“You’ve got to be patient, and you’ve got to take each day to learn something or teach the students,” she said. “Each one of you has to learn the other’s behavior and actually bond as a Family, because once you get that trust and understanding they will open up to who they are. And they learn better when they know they can trust in you.”
Because of her experiences as a former Soldier and a military parent, relating to students on the installation comes naturally to Gladden. She joined the Army in 1985 and served 13 years at duty stations including Pirmasens, Germany; Camp Carroll, Waegwon, South Korea; and Fort Hood, Texas.
“I joined the Army to get benefits and to go all over the world and experience different people,” she said. “It was a learning experience every day, building unity amongst us. And when we have that unity here at school, it enlightens you and makes you feel like this is a home.”
Gladden said it is important that educators provide structure and comfort for students, whether they’re struggling academically or dealing with a parent’s deployment. During Operation Lethal Eagle, she has drawn from her own military experience to help students deal with their parents’ absence.
“We feel like respect is the most important thing, because once you learn how to respect someone you can overcome educational problems,” Gladden said. “We’re here to see things like that – to see the children excel, to see them overcome and to see them break those boundaries.”
Fort Campbell High School Cafeteria Manager Teresa Woods has worked to keep hundreds of military students well-fed since 2013, and she said the opportunity is a dream come true.
“It’s always been a passion of mine to cook, and seeing the kids enjoy what we cook even though our ingredients are limited brings me joy,” Woods said. “And it’s a way to give back, because this is something I always wanted to do. Ever since I was young and saw the ladies working in my lunchroom it sparked something in me. You won’t hear many people say they want to be a lunch lady, but I did.”
Before she started working for DoDEA, Woods served in the Army for 14 years as a tank turret repairer. Most of that time was spent stationed at Fort Lewis, Washington, alongside her husband who worked with artillery.
“When he went to the field, I had to go to the field,” she said. “We had to entrust our children to someone that we didn’t really know, and when my daughter got sick, I got out of the military. I decided I wanted to do for my Soldiers what I didn’t have, which was having support, so I started watching kids.”
Woods began providing child care after leaving the Army in 1999, and before long she and her husband moved to Fort Campbell. She was encouraged to apply for DoDEA while working as a volunteer kitchen staffer for Child and Youth Services.
“Child care taught me a lot about nutrition, because I went from being in the military to being a Family Child Care provider in my home,” she said. “What I’ve learned from that I can now use in the school system, and they train us even more here.”
Working in the cafeteria also gives Woods a chance to reach out to students who may be struggling with a parent’s deployment, something she experienced with her own children.
“The most rewarding thing is being able to talk to the kids and see the smiles on their faces, because we know military life can be hard,” she said. “Especially with parents going back and forth into the field and everything, just to be able to put a smile on their face and give them a little bit of happiness in their day is amazing. Something as simple as a pizza can do that, and that’s rewarding to see.”
COVID-19 upended life for students across the country, but Linnea Velsvaag has made it her mission to provide them stability.
Although Velsvaag is normally assigned to Mahaffey Middle School, she was detailed to virtual school at the onset of the pandemic and works with students in the Americas, Europe and the Pacific.
“For many of them, they either have a health issue or someone in their Family does, so being in a school setting puts them more at risk,” she said. “I work with those middle school students and their Families that are in a total virtual school setting with the DoD curriculum ... tracking grades and assisting with any issues they have to help them be more successful.”
Velsvaag is able to help military Families with whatever struggles they may face after serving a combined 21 years with the U.S. Army, National Guard and Reserve and traveling to duty stations across the world.
“My favorite thing about working with military students and their Families is offering the support that they need,” she said. “I’ve been dual military, I’ve been single parent military and I’ve been a single parent deployed with kids in school. I think I have a really good perspective on some of the challenges that the Families may encounter, and I really am honored to be able to support them as they go through all of these transitions and the craziness in our world right now.”
If a student is having trouble with virtual lessons, Velsvaag works with their school counselor to develop a plan for the Family using the resources available on their installation. Since military students are often highly adaptable from constant moves, changing their approach to education can be a simple solution.
“Military kids are really independent for their age,” Velsvaag said. “They’re very mature because there are so many expectations on them to fend for themselves or to be in charge of the house with young siblings.”
That means Velsvaag can count on her students not only to stay on top of their assignments, but to succeed as they continue through school and into adulthood. She often runs into former students while out and about, including five children she taught at Wiesbaden High School in Germany.
“My former students are now at the high school if they stayed in the military community, and because Fort Campbell is relatively small sometimes I’ll run into them at the commissary or the PX,” she said. “I’m able to follow their progress and watch them grow, and there are several students that I had as eighth graders now in their junior and senior years I’m seeing just do remarkable things, and I’m so proud of them.”
‘I’m very honored to be around them’
Jeffery Cherry is helping train the next generation of service members as Fort Campbell High School’s JROTC senior Army instructor following a 29-year Army career.
Since arriving on the installation in December 2020, Cherry has been impressed with the student body and excited to work with them.
“I like the resiliency of military students,” he said. “These young people are very adaptive, very flexible and they have greater challenges than the average teenager has to deal with. Yet they also seem to rise to those challenges instead of just succumbing and saying anything is too hard.”
Cherry said he also appreciates the energy military students bring to the classroom and the way they support one another through deployments, moves and more.
“They have a different feeling about celebrating the moment instead of the day, and that’s one of the adjustment mechanisms we have in the military,” he said. “Instead of thinking of Christmas as Dec. 25, think about celebrating Christmas when all of your Family is available and you have all of your desires and needs to celebrate that event.”
After growing up in a military Family himself and serving as a logistician and research analyst in the Army, Cherry is well-acquainted with the lifestyle.
Throughout his career, he traveled across the enterprise and served in nearly every position in the enlisted ranks before commissioning as a second lieutenant in field logistics, eventually serving as a company commander, battalion executive officer and university-level ROTC instructor.
“As a military service member, I learned about the challenges parents are going through having to sacrifice quality time and missing key events with their kids, and I also learned about the different installations,” he said. “I can give them firsthand knowledge when they have anxiety about going to a new place and show them it’s not going to be so bad. It’s refreshing for them to know there’s a teacher or educator who has personal knowledge of where they’re going.”
Cherry’s experience as a father of three also helps him relate to his students, and the perspectives his own children have shared with him provide a greater understanding.
“I never thought I would see so much investment as far as the civic-mindedness and commitment to the nation as I see in these kids,” he said. “Because of where they’re located and the dynamics of their Family, they see service to the nation almost as a pathway to adulthood, whether or not they put a uniform on. And for that, I’m very honored to be around them.”
Editor’s Note: This is the second story in a two-part series celebrating veterans who now teach at Fort Campbell. The Department of Defense Education Activity continues a tradition of excellence as it marks its 75th anniversary. DoDEA operates 160 schools in eight districts across 11 countries, seven U.S. states and two U.S. territories for more than 67,000 students, including six schools at Fort Campbell. To celebrate this milestone the Fort Campbell Courier will feature stories about Fort Campbell schools throughout the 2021-2022 academic year.