Help brewing for Tri-City veterans

RICHLAND -- The transition from serving in the Marines to being a college student was tough for Scott Dawson. It took some time to shake the feeling of isolation five years ago, he said.

When he transferred to Washington State University Tri-Cities in 2009 and met veterans who had recently returned from the battlefield, he decided to use his experiences to help them.

"I didn't want them to feel the way I felt when I got out," Dawson said.

Within a couple of months, he and a fellow former soldier started a Veterans Club for students at the Richland campus.

Last summer, the veterans got some more help when Jason Alves was hired as the campus' Vet Corps coordinator -- a position created by the state's Department of Veterans Affairs.

And now the two men and a few other veterans are pushing for a permanent marker to show returning soldiers that they're not alone at the university. A veterans memorial is in the early planning stages and the students just started raising the $45,000 they need to build it. But they're confident they'll get it built, possibly early this fall.

Their first fundraising effort starts Feb. 5 and it involves a product that practically sells itself -- beer.

The veterans have teamed up with Ice Harbor Brewing, which will release a new brew for a limited time.

For each pint of Patriot Pilsner sold, the beer company will donate $1 toward the veterans' efforts. Ice Harbor made 10 barrels of the stuff -- or about 2,500 pints, said Andrew Schultz, who had the idea for the hoppy fundraiser.

Schultz finished his four years of service in the Army in January 2009. He'd spent 16 months in Iraq.

"It was difficult," is all he was willing to say about coming back to civilian life. He had to force himself to go back to school. But he did, enrolling at Blue Mountain Community College in Hermiston within two months after his return.

Last year, he transferred to WSU Tri-Cities, and found the group of men and women who shared his background.

"The Veterans Club is somewhere you can go and get some commonality," Schultz said. "We can always talk to each other on a certain level that nobody else can."

About 135 veterans take classes at the Richland campus, up from 70 just a year ago, Alves -- the Vet Corps coordinator -- said. That number is expected to continue to rise. The club is an important piece of campus life for the former soldiers, Alves said.

"By having a sense of community we keep veterans from isolating themselves," he said. And that sense of community would be strengthened by a memorial, he said.

"It'd show that our campus is veteran-friendly," Alves said. "It could offer a place to sit and take in their stories."

The design the veterans have in mind would share stories through a combination of sculpture and the written word.

The sketches made by Benton City artist Tom McClelland show an open book on the ground. Its pages are swept into the air by the fierce Tri-City winds. Each page bears a quote or story segment from a local veteran. The bronze monument would be about 8 feet tall.

The design is not final and may change entirely as the proposal for erecting a monument on university land works through the WSU approval process.

But even if they don't know what it'll look like, the students are sure they can get the money for the monument. Schultz -- who works at Ice Harbor part-time -- cooked up the Pilsner recipe with his boss. Others have connections to a local golf club and are planning a tournament in April. Businesses have pledged support.

Once the club made the decision to build a memorial, things started moving quickly.

"These are people with leadership experience," Alves said. "They all know how to get stuff done."