Throughout the week as students pass Cater Lawn they are met with a visual representation of 210 red stakes representing the lives of veterans taken by suicide. Social Chair for Auburn’s Student Veterans Association and retired Senior Airman Heather Ralson stands by the visual, ready to answer questions and inform others about the disheartening truths of being a veteran.
Ralson began her studies at Auburn last semester after serving six years in the Air Force. During her time, Ralson was stationed in Montana for three years on an airborne team specializing in recapture and recovery of nuclear weapons. Ralson was later stationed in Alabama, during which time she completed a combat tour in Afghanistan.
“Being able to see our countryside from a helicopter, I often just sat back in awe thinking, ‘Wow, this is my job,’” Ralson said of one of the moments that stays with her most. “I had the same feeling when I would fly around in Afghanistan.”
Ralson was the third woman in her family to be in the military and the first one to go on a combat tour. Coming from a military family, Ralson was most inspired by her grandfather to join the military. After her grandfather served 10 years as a marine, Ralson said it was the values he learned in the military that stayed with him.
“It was just the right path for me, and it made me into the strong, independent woman that I am today,” Ralson said.
Due to getting hurt in Afghanistan, Ralson medically separated from the military and went on to pursue her undergraduate degree in wildlife ecology and management.
After recognizing Auburn’s School of Wildlife and Forestry to be one of the best in the region, Ralson decided on Auburn.
“It is just a friendly environment to live,” Ralson said. “When I came to visit and talked to the director of Veterans Resource Center, I just [knew] it was the place I wanted to be.”
It is Ralson’s love and appreciation for animals that drove her in this direction.
“The reason I chose wildlife ecology and management was
But even with Ralson’s choice of a direction that fascinates her, she cannot escape the stresses of her past with the heightened stress of being a student.
“You have to figure out where your classes are, where you fit
This is when Ralson turned to the Veterans Resource Center and the Auburn Student Veterans Association open to any veteran on campus. The resource center helped Ralson with resources like tutors as well as knowledge of counseling opportunities free to students.
“When I know I have a bad day, I know I can go get help if I need it,” Ralson said. “A lot of us don’t have family here, and even though we are out of the military, the staff there looks out for us.”
Ralson said there are multiple forms of post-traumatic stress
“As far as being haunted, I guess because the military spends so much time building us up, it’s hard to ask for help when we need it,” Ralson said. “Especially as an older student, it’s harder for me even still to admit when I need help.”
Ralson said she notices a difference among her and her peers’ interactions. Due to Ralson’s path leading her to be older than the usual student, Ralson noted times of frustration she faced when she was met with younger students who did not share the same life experience.
She said even when she butted heads with students over certain topics, students would still be interested in her words as an older and more experienced student.
With the ability to share her words, Ralson wanted to take the opportunity to break down the barriers between fellow veterans on campus and other students. She encouraged students to approach those wearing the “war damn veterans” T-shirts around campus.
Dissuading students from being intimidated by veterans covered in tattoos or rendered unapproachable, Ralson said not to be afraid to come up and talk to them because most of them are very friendly.
Ralson urged interested parties to reach out to the Veterans Research Center and herself with questions and involvement or partnership opportunities.
“If anyone just has questions about military service I would rather a student come to us first before they went to a recruiter,” Ralson said.
On top of her school work and responsibilities as social chair, Ralson works within the Veteran Research Center helping the certifying officials make sure students are certified in order to receive their parents’ or their benefits.
“You have everything set out for you, you have when to be there in the morning, what uniform to wear, where to be, who’s in charge, there is a chain of command that you have to follow and then when you go to school it is kind of like running around like a chicken with your head cut off,” Ralson said.
In order to handle these pressures, Ralson taps into one of her hobbies as a stress reliever. She enjoys drawing and utilizes it as her escape and a manner to relax.
“It helped me with anxiety and to decompress overseas, and now it does the same for me, but it’s just something that is relaxing,” Ralson said. “If I ever need to take a break from study or just clear my head, I can pull out my sketchbook.”
Ralson continues to find a balance between her studies and responsibility as she continues to earn her bachelor’s degree. Ralson plans to maintain this balance as she looks forward to the possibility of receiving her graduate degree from Auburn as well.
“Don’t be stubborn and ask for help when you need it,” Random said, encouraging students from her experiences.