Mount St. Joseph University

Home of the Brave: The Mount Experience Prepares Veterans for Success

Mount News: alumni magazine


Meet Matthew Schmittou, a former Marine explosives specialist whose combat experience in Iraq enriched the education of many students at the Mount.

Meet Donnyelle Smith, an Army sergeant serving in the Reserves while pursuing a double major at the Mount.

Meet Jack Brown, a former Army sergeant who landed a dream job as a federal law enforcement officer with the Mount’s support.

These are just three examples of the strong and deep connection between the Mount and the military. Students are learning leadership skills they put to work in the Armed Forces, and veterans are bringing talents and experience honed from their military service to campus. 

The connection and collaboration begins at the top, with Mount President Tony Aretz, Ph.D., a retired Lt Col who served 28 years in the Air Force. Twenty-one of those years were as a professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Dr. Aretz understands firsthand how veterans are role models for other students, displaying the values of honor and integrity that they learned while serving the country. He also knows how veterans bring a worldview and different experiences that enrich learning for everyone at the Mount.

“These vets have witnessed the tragedies of war. They have seen things that are life-changing,” says Aretz. “When they come back, they have a better understanding of what the most important and least important things are, which are different for an 18-year-old. They pass on that perspective of a rightly ordered life.”

“I was certainly glad my experience as a Marine in Iraq was able to benefit my peers’ education by giving them a firsthand perspective of certain aspects of history that I have lived.” – Matthew Schmittou

Since arriving at the Mount in 2008, Aretz has seen the number of veterans on campus quadruple to more than 70 in 2013 because of active outreach, word of mouth that the Mount is veteran-friendly, and the new GI Bill, which makes it more affordable for veterans to return to school.

“G.I. Jobs,” a resource for veterans returning to school or the workforce, has named the Mount a “military–friendly school,” for, among other things, offering assistance and incentives to veterans, including credit for professional military education.

The veterans on campus are prominent, especially with the social club Veterans In Communities (VIC), which educates the community about local veterans’ issues. Aretz says VIC is one of the most active clubs on campus.

“They set the bar high when it comes to student organizations,” Aretz says. “They raise money for charities, sponsor activities on campus and host events, such as grill-outs. They know how to organize and get things done because that’s what you do in the military.

” VIC is open to faculty, students and staff who can utilize the VIC club lounge in Seton Center. The space is used for meetings and respite, said Lynn Taber, records and registration coordinator and VA school certifying official at the Mount. “It is a lounge for veterans to get acquainted with each other and study together,” Taber says.

History in the Making

When Matthew Schmittou came to the Mount in 2008, he brought with him 15 months of combat experience as an infantry assaultman in Iraq. He served in Al Anbar province, one of the most dangerous places in the war.

He joined the military after graduating from Colerain High School in 2004, having been affected deeply by the 9/11 terror attacks. At 16, he “pretty much had my mind made up” that he wanted to serve his country. He also knew he wanted to go to college, so when his tour was up in 2008, he came to the Mount.

He brought a unique perspective and worldview to campus, which proved to be a perfect fit for the history program. Schmittou says his professors valued the insight he shared as a recent combat vet – an angle that otherwise would have been lacking in the lectures.

“A huge part of world history deals with military history that has shaped the planet over the centuries,” says Schmittou. “I was certainly glad my experience as a Marine in Iraq was able to benefit my peers’ education by giving them a firsthand perspective of certain aspects of history that I have lived.”

Many Mount professors ask veterans to share their experiences in class, Schmittou says. “The faculty as a whole recognizes how important that is and how it can affect other members of the student body.”

Schmittou, who was very active in the VIC, excelled in the classroom with the same full-on commitment he showed in the military. He earned a 3.97 GPA and was awarded the 2012 Distinguished Student Award. The history major gave the commencement speech at the non-traditional graduation.

His goal now is to pursue a commission as a Marine Corps officer.

Schmittou says the Mount is very appealing to veterans and calls the increase in numbers of former military at the school over recent years “astonishing.”

“With a smaller atmosphere and hometown feel, you’re not a number at the Mount. That’s very appealing to someone coming out of the military, who was a number and a statistic for years,” he says.

Personal Improvement

With 15 years of Army service under her belt, Donnyelle Smith is a veteran whose service inspired her to seek out an education to improve her quality of life.

After returning from Baghdad in 2005, where she served in the 320th AG Postal Unit, Smith obtained her medical massage degree from Antonelli College. She worked full-time for three years as a medical massage therapist. Then she found the Mount through Antonelli.

And it is a perfect fit.

“With President Aretz being retired military and others on campus being former military, there is a sense of anticipation and hope that you can be successful in your civilian life and career after the military,” Smith says.

For Smith and other veterans, that acceptance is key.

“There are a lot of vets trying to decide what they want to do next, and having all of this support right here goes along with that,” Smith says.

She will finish her double major in criminology and sociology in December. Smith credits her success from the support she receives from VIC, which offers lots of resources.

“The VIC Club lounge is a spot for us to study, and it helps me stay focused,” Smith says.

“The Mount is teaching me theories and ideas and how to be ethically responsible for my actions and for society.” – Donnyelle Smith 

Her military background and the changes she sees in the world led Smith to the degree. She says she wants to contribute her time and efforts not just toward preventing crime, but also examining the underlying issues that youth face to “understand why certain things happen in order to resolve it.”

“That has always been my approach,” Smith says. “These things are not all of a sudden. It is either a lack of resources or education or the way they were brought up.”

In Baghdad, Smith was one of 19 members of the 320th AG Postal Unit. The group’s mission was to set up postal services in the “green zone” of downtown Baghdad.

They succeeded by converting Saddam Hussein’s embassy building into a postal unit and living quarters that allowed military personnel, contractors and locals to send and receive mail and packages daily.

Prior to Smith’s unit, Iraqi solders were targeting U.S. military mail trucks because they knew lack of mail damaged soldier’s morale, Smith says. Mail was only getting through about once a month.

The postal unit was in a hot zone, so it was dangerous work. The 320th also provided money orders and stamps and made sure that “packages got to you no matter where you were,” Smith says. “It was trial and error but we made a huge impact.”

Now Smith is ready to make her mark in another way. She often talks about her military experiences in class, and she says professors encourage veterans to share their insights, which can differ greatly from those of traditional college students.

“With veterans, we’ve been all over the world, yet we still want to improve ourselves and our education,” Smith says. “The Mount is teaching me theories and ideas and how to be ethically responsible for my actions and for society.”

Prepared to Soar

Jack Brown chose the Mount because of its smaller size and more personal experience between students and faculty. The Brooklyn, N.Y., native came to Cincinnati when he left the Army in 2010. Both he and his wife, Tanja, whom he married in August 2010, served together at Fort Bliss, Texas, before deciding to attend the Mount together.

Brown knew as soon as he set foot on campus that he was in the right place. In his very first class there were eight former military.

“Ironically we all sat in a row together even before we knew we were veterans,” says Brown, laughing. “I was thinking, ‘First semester, first class, this is great, to have someone to relate to.’”

The 32-year-old also experienced the Mount’s personalized support during the hiring process when he applied for a law enforcement job with a federal intelligence agency. During the exhaustive background check process, investigators interviewed many professors, students and administrators who know him.

“They were definitely helpful in that process. Everyone was just available,” says Brown, who cited Dr. Brooke Gialopsos and Dr. J.W. Carter II, both assistant professors of criminology, as particularly helpful.

The result: After graduating in May with a degree in general studies, he got the job and left for training at Fort Meade in Maryland in July.

The tank electronics technician is glad to finally be settling into a career after a nomadic military journey that spanned 10 years (1999-2005 and 2008-10) and took him to Maryland, Georgia, Texas, Italy, and Iraq.

During the past three years, Brown says he became good friends with many other veterans on campus, some of whom he met at one of the most poignant moments of his Mount career, when President Aretz hosted a special dinner for former military.

“My wife and I were talking about that the whole night, about how crazy it was to be eating dinner with the president of the school,” Brown says. “Had we been at any other big school, that likely wouldn’t have happened. He was very personable, going around the room, wanting to know each of our individual stories, asking us what brought us to the Mount. It was really cool.”

Whether it’s Dr. Aretz or the faculty showing their support, the message from the Mount to veterans is the same: You are not only welcome, you will be embraced and supported as you reach for your dreams.

Challenge Coin Ceremony

The Mount presented graduated veterans with challenge coins at a ceremony in October 2013. 

The event is a way for college leadership to acknowledge military Mount graduates for their service and accomplishments. Veteran graduates and their families were presented the blue and gold coins by President Tony Aretz. 

Challenge coins are popular throughout all branches of the military, and are used for recognition, to build morale and to show pride. 

Challenge coins date back to World War I, when a lieutenant ordered bronze coins for his squadron. One man kept the coin in a leather pouch. When he escaped capture by the Germans, the French recognized the unit insignia on his coin and assisted him. It soon became tradition for all military members to carry challenge coins.