Five questions for Cameron Cook

At CU Denver, Marine veteran strives to set standard for serving fellow vets

Cameron Cook and his wife, Jessica, at the Marine Corps Ball.

His dream was to save lives as a firefighter. But it was an emotional fire that consumed Cameron Cook and propelled him to become a different type of rescuer.

Just after terrorists attacked New York’s World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, Cook picked up the phone and called a United States Marine recruiter. After boot camp, he served as an aviation weapons technician, building bombs for aircraft and rockets for helicopter gun systems while serving in Okinawa, Japan, and in Al Asad, Iraq.  When he returned to the United States, he headed for college: He still hoped to become a fireman.

The transition from Marine to student was not easy.

“Once you’ve been in the military and seen that stuff, you have a certain frame of mind, and it’s hard for people who haven’t been there to relate,” he said. “I was re-integrating back into civilian life and learning how to be a student all over again. I felt alone. I had a close-knit team in the Marine Corps, but school is an individualized experience.”

After finishing his studies at a San Diego community college, he moved to Denver and attended Metropolitan State University of Denver. As part of the GI Bill, he was required to work for veterans’ organizations.

Initially, Cook saw his work with veterans as a little extra income to get through his school years so that he could finish his degree in fire science.

“But once you start helping veterans, it lights a fire in you,” he said. “It’s a pretty unique population with a lot of great people.”

When he graduated from Metro, the position of Veteran Student Services director opened at the University of Colorado Denver.

“All the cards fell into place and the stars aligned. I jumped on board and it’s been pretty awesome ever since. Fate was pointing me in one direction and I was looking in another and didn’t see it until this position opened up.

“The Marine Corps is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. That’s where I met my wife; I have the GI Bill; I have this job. But I got out for a reason. It was not the most pleasant experience in my life,” Cook said. “Until I started working with vets, I didn’t identify as a vet. I wanted to keep that separate, which is a difficult and confusing line to walk because you’re proud of what you did, you loved what you did, but you also hated what you did. Or you didn’t like it.”

Because he lived it, he understands the ups and downs that most veterans go through. Cook works to help smooth the bumpy road from the military to the classroom through a variety of university services. One of his most high-profile programs, Boots to Suits, helps student vets make yet another transition – from school to the job market.

1. How did you become involved with Boots to Suits?

Cook talks about Boots to Suits at a CU Advocates forum in September at the CU Denver Business School.

Our first priority in veterans’ services is to process the GI benefit and facilitate the transition from military to education and to support the vets. So I always keep in mind my experiences – the alone feeling and the difficulty with the transition. But the treasurer in my Veterans Student Organization came up with the Boots to Suits idea, to develop a program that would expand that focus to the next step – career transition. The ultimate goal is employment. Many organizations want to hire veterans and we’re trying to produce candidates who meet those needs. It’s a huge honor to serve the people that I serve here. I tell the students that this is my office and I work here, but we all help each other through it and that’s very special.

2. What does the program entail?

There are four pieces to the program. First, hire a vet; second, internships; and third, mentor a vet. Mentoring is the unique piece, and we set it up as a precursor to the other two. A lot of the veterans joined the military in their late teens or early 20s and have never really done a job interview. Few have written a professional resume and many haven’t done a professional job search. We match the students with mentors who guide them and help them get up to speed with their civilian counterparts. The program also educates the business community. Vets bring a lot of intangibles to jobs: teamwork, mission, focus, a can’t-fail attitude and leadership. That brings us to the fourth part: Once the vets complete the mentorship, we buy them a suit so they’re ready for the career process.

3. Why is the Boots to Suits program important to CU and the community?

It’s a tangible way to support and help out vets. A lot of people support the troops but they haven’t known a way to do it. Boots to Suits has given them a tangible way and the response has been overwhelming.

Obviously we want to make sure our vets are employed and can further serve and contribute to society, and build upon what they’ve done in the military – their service and sacrifice. I believe the community is 100 percent behind the program: Our generation is very lucky that American citizens support us so much, regardless of what they think of the war. People support us and we are honored and blessed and thankful for that.

For the students, it’s about opportunity. We’re opening doors for them. We’re teaching them to fish. I know that’s a cliché. We’re not asking people to offer them jobs, we’re asking them to spend time coaching these student vets on what it takes to get in the workforce and succeed. Time is the most valuable asset there is.

Right now, we have 60 vets involved with the program, but we’re looking to expand. There is no other model to follow, so this first year has been a pilot program. Our first partner was the Denver Metro Chamber, and it has been a huge champion of the cause, helping vets seeking business careers. We’re looking to expand and open pipelines to different career areas that students are interested in – the public sector, nonprofit, engineering, medicine, law enforcement and entrepreneurship.

4. What other programs for vets do you oversee?

When I was initially hired, I had a desk and a phone. I realized there needed to be more support structures for vets because this is a unique population with unique needs. We developed a Veteran  Student Mentor Program where upper-class veterans mentor new student veterans. They speak with the new students and their family members at least three times a semester to find out how it’s going and to act as a referral resource. We also want to make sure we’re doing everything we can to ease that transition for the vets. For some people, it’s seamless, but for some it’s really big.

For the retention and support piece, we have the Veteran Student Organization, which began in the fall of 2010.  A year later, it was the largest student organization on campus and the largest student vet organization in Colorado with more than 300 registered members. The group’s focus is building camaraderie, a team environment and a social network. That’s one of the things we veterans miss most when we leave the military. In the services, your team is your family and we work with our family and we’re around our family all of the time. When you go to school, it’s very individualized and self-motivated. So the student organization is in place to help with that change.

I’m also very proud of the new veteran’s student center in Tivoli 124. It’s got a computer lab, an office for student employees, a lounge with a TV, and a kitchenette. We launched it at the beginning of this semester and it’s been huge for community building. We’ve had 1,300 visits in past six weeks; it’s taken on a life of its own. Vets are starting to do things outside of school together and are really building the environment. Some might say we are putting vets into silos, but our big focus is integration. People have study groups and we had our first flag football tournament on Veteran’s Day that involved people from all over the campus.

In the fall 0f 2009, there were approximately 9,000 student vets in Colorado. By the end of fall last year, there were 27,000. (CU Denver) went from about 300 student vets to about 900. And as we continue to build our community, we’ll integrate more with the at-large community. I want to set the example for other vet organizations to follow. I want CU Denver to set the standard for serving veterans.

5. Dealing with veteran issues must be a stressful job. How do you relax?

This position does get heavy. Our students are dynamic and have their sets of issues. Home is my sanctuary and my solace. I didn’t marry my wife, Jessica, until after I finished my tour but we dated all through my time away. The hardest thing in the military is what the significant other has to go through. She went through 14 months in Okinawa and seven months in Iraq with me and she stuck with me. I have a picture of the two of us at the Marine Corps Ball, and it makes me remember all that we’ve been through. I was 35 when I had my kids, so I’m a little older and more grounded, and I don’t get out much. I have a 5-month-old baby and a 20-month-old baby, so those are my interests right now.