The pandemic is expected to raise rates of suicide nationwide. Veterans are at a high risk for suicide
The pandemic is expected to raise rates of suicide nationwide.

The college’s mentorship programs help veterans re-adjust to life outside of the military.

WILLIAMSBURG – Bob Merkl followed in his father’s footsteps, making the military his career. For 23 years, he served in the US Army. But when it came time to retire in 1998, he was stuck with the question of what to do next. 

“By the time I reached my mid-40s, that’s all I had ever known,” Merkl said. “I grew up with [the military] as a kid. Then I went to West Point [and] spent 23 years on active duty. So when it was time for me to retire, I woke up one morning and realized I didn’t know anything about the outside world. The only culture that I understood was the culture of the military. The only language that I spoke was the military language. I really didn’t know how to translate what I had done into something that an employer would understand and value.” 

Although eventually successful, Merkl’s transition period wasn’t easy. Navigating a differently structured word came with challenges.

“I had a lot of stereotypes about the outside world, just like the outside world had a lot of stereotypes about me. Part of the learning curve that you have to go through is understanding that a lot of what you’ve learned, you have to relearn – and you don’t even know what you don’t know,” Merkl said.

While the veteran eventually found his way, Merkl wanted to make it easier for others. That’s why he jumped at the opportunity last fall to work with William & Mary. Thanks to an anonymous $10 million donation, the college was able to put more money into its veterans’ services. Now Merkl serves as special assistant for military & veterans affairs with the school’s Veteran-to-Executive transition program. 

William & Mary Builds A Safety Net

“It becomes very valuable to have a mentor and people helping you go through that transition. I didn’t have one at the time, so I learned a lot of lessons the hard way,” Merkl said. “What we’re trying to do with this program is to set folks up with people that have already been through this process, who understand what they’re going to encounter and help them better prepare themselves for it.”

With the $10 million donation, the college offers a mentorship program, composed of veterans who successfully transitioned into civilian life. It pairs a veteran new to civilian life with someone who already lived through that experience.

“[The donor] had observed that some of the people that she had helped place in senior civilian roles had a harder time than she expected them to have and she started wondering why that would be the case,” Merkl said. 

Merkl called the donor’s vision “innovative” and her generosity “gracious.”

“My greatest hope is that it is both self-sustaining and self-generating. I envision a program that takes all of those great resources that I mentioned and leverages them to their most efficient use. [That way] we can provide more and more benefits to the veteran population at reduced costs,” Merkl said.

Identifying The Need

Hampton Roads alone has 85,000 active duty veterans, with between 12,000 to 15,000 transitioning each year out of the military. Merkl believes the new program can make that change easier. 

“Everybody’s going to have a different experience. Everybody’s going to have a different learning curve,” Merkle said. “People will be going into different industries and different [vocations] that have different cultures. And so if you can really personalize the mentor-mentee relationship, I think that will be very valuable long-term.”

He also spoke about combining the program’s offerings with internship opportunities.

“While you’re here at William and Mary, your mentor is helping place you into where you might go next so that both the company gets a chance to see you and you get to see the company and develop a relationship and a network and almost a try-and-buy opportunity on both ends,” Merkl said.

Additionally, he hoped that those who found success outside of the military would come back to speak to other veterans in a lecture series.

“Ideally, what I would like to see is every generation, every cohort, continuing to pay it forward so that 20 years from now, a veteran who’s been through William and Mary who’s had the benefit of these programs and this mentor and intern position, now they’re a senior executive at an industry – maybe at the shipyard or something – they’re giving it back to a generation of the Class of 2040 at William and Mary and they’re doing the same thing,” Merkl said.

Looking Ahead at William & Mary

Originally expected to launched this year, the pandemic put everything on hold for a bit. Now the inaugural two-week transition class will begin June 2022. Right now, that’s scheduled for June 6-17 of next year, to be specific.

If you or someone you know wants to be part of the project, you can get more information about applying by emailing flourishing@wm.edu.

Being on both sides of the spectrum – from career military to civilian life – Merkl expressed hope for the veteran-focused programs at William & Mary.

“I know how valuable a program is like this to the people that are involved,” Merkl said.

Amie Knowles reports for The Dogwood. You can reach her at amie@couriernewsroom.com

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