Multi-faceted veterans’ project to start

A thrice-wounded former Marine who heads a complex of veterans’ service organizations is launching an additional multi-pronged, multi-million-dollar enterprise in Altoona to educate vets and enlarge their career opportunities.

Virginia native and Vietnam vet Dennis Butts’ United States Veterans Educational Institute and related organizations will anchor their operations at the former Bon Secours-Holy Family Hospital campus, which USVEI is buying from UPMC Altoona.

The venture is projected to eventually employ approximately 300 here, Butts said.

A formal announcement will take place during a press conference this morning.

Butts said USVEI will teach highly motivated vets – 300 by September, 1,000 after three years – science, technology, engineering and math via a distance-learning partnership with Clarion University, housing all of them in a military-style environment at the former hospital complex, all at no charge.

The organization will operate labs specializing in development of visual and video technology through government and private-sector contracts, a money-making operation that will finance and supplement the educational effort.

And in the basement, it will operate a secure site outside the nuclear blast range for Washington, D.C., that would mirror the operations of a federal agency that deals in classified information, so that in a crisis, it could become a safe, live-in refuge and data preservation center for employees of the agency.

Structured schedule

By segregating veterans in a highly structured environment, with regular reveille and meal times and penalties for failure to attend class, USVEI will eliminate the main reason for the high college failure rate for vets – an unfamiliar lack of discipline, Butts said.

“Once released [from the military], it’s like letting the pressure out of a bottle,” Butts said. “They don’t have to do anything [in regular college], so they won’t.”

All vets admitted to USVEI will need to have a 4.5 “proficiency conduct rating” in the service – out of a maximum 5, Butts said.

It’s the academic equivalent of an A, he said.

They’ll also need to meet the educational requirements of Clarion, he said.

In addition to the education they’ll get, they’ll be able to make a wealth of career-enhancing contacts, not only through Clarion faculty, but also through the engineers in the labs, where they can work to supplement their education.

The setup will be unique, as far as Clarion Provost and Academic Vice President Ronald Nowaczyk knows.

“If we can pull it off, and I think we can, it could be a model for other institutions and locations in the [U.S.],” Nowaczyk said.

It came together quickly, with Butts first contacting Clarion in December, a two-visit to the university by USVEI officials and a memorandum of understanding in principle within a week, according to Nowaczyk.

Agreement being signed

The parties will sign that memorandum today at the Altoona Ramada Conference Center, committing them to “put the nuts and bolts together to make this work,” Nowaczyk said.

Butts made the contact after a recommendation by an associate whose spouse is connected to the university, Nowaczyk said.

“Once he came up here, he saw what we can offer,” he said. “It was serendipitous.”

Clarion already has a “military-friendly” designation, dozens of veterans enrolled and a history of working with nontraditional students at its main and Venango campuses, Nowaczyk said.

The USVEI setup “fits with our mission,” Nowaczyk said.

The primary method for delivering course content will be video conferencing technology on both sides that would allow USVEI students in Altoona to experience a traditional class being taught at Clarion in real time, with two-way interaction between the professor and the students in both places and among all the students.

“It’s not like the old correspondence courses,” Nowaczyk said.

But sometimes, Clarion professors may come to Altoona to teach face-to-face, and during the summer and winter breaks at Clarion, USVEI students may go to the university campus to learn, especially for labs, according to Nowaczyk.

The university’s focus will be on student success, he said.

When USVEI wants a course Clarion doesn’t offer, Clarion will work to obtain it from one of the other 13 Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education universities – either through Clarion or directly from the other school, Nowaczyk said.

Identifying career paths

There are challenges in dealing with veterans, according to Nowaczyk.

“We are going to be trying to fill their days,” he said.

And also their years: the university plans to teach the USVEI vets “across the calendar,” he said.

That will create opportunities for accelerated learning, he said.

The university will work to identify career paths matching their needs and capabilities, he said.

The university will give credit for skills learned in the military, like team-building and medical expertise, he said.

Clarion will benefit by expanding its enrollment and its reach to nontraditional students, Nowaczyk said.

USVEI will get course content allowing vets to obtain certificates and associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees, he said.

The arrangement is a “clear opportunity for both,” Nowaczyk said.

The products of the technology initiative at the Bon Secours complex could be commercial, medical, educational or military in application – or for entertainment, according to Butts.

One potential product line: Improvised Explosive Device detection, he said.

USVEI would have an edge in bidding on government contracts, because Butts is a service-disabled vet, he said.

Complex affordable

Butts first came to Altoona on the advice of a longtime associate to do seminars “and relax awhile,” he said.

When he arrived, someone suggested creating educational programs for vets.

He wasn’t interested at first, thinking it would necessarily be a small operation.

He looked at some buildings, and those too, seemed too small for anything of great significance.

But when he talked with a local real estate broker, a fellow Marine with whom he formed a bond, he heard about the Bon Secours complex.

He attended a meeting with local hospital and economic development officials about the property.

“Everybody said, ‘Let’s do this,'” Butts said.

Then in a couple days, he received a proposed option agreement.

“I was floored,” he said.

The price for the 14-acre complex was just $2.5 million, according to information made public in connection with a property tax agreement between the taxing bodies and the hospital.

A similar piece of real estate would have been prohibitively expensive in the Washington, D.C., area, Butts said.

The low price makes it workable here.

Near-death motivator

A near-death experience in Vietnam and a desire to fulfill the ambitions of buddies who didn’t make it home helped to motivate Butts.

“I went through the light,” he said of the aftermath of his second wounding.

But a voice told him he needed to go back, he said.

“You can’t enter heaven without your soul,” he wrote of the experience in a paper subtitled “A Conversation with my Soul,” which he shared with the Mirror.

He had lost that soul little-by-little, because of the killing the war required, he said.

“I knew you were not there with me, my Soul, or I could never have done what I did,” he wrote. “When we went into that village that night, I was glad you were not there.”

He has been on a quest to find his soul again.

Despite doing the things his late wartime friends used to talk about doing after getting home – driving race cars, bodybuilding, meeting famous athletes – and despite starting a series of business ventures, he has continued to feel alienated from God, unworthy of heaven and bereft of feeling.

He’s come to believe that now, however, with the current project, he has discovered why he returned from “the light,” he said.

“This is what the hell I brought you home for,” he said, imagining the voice of God addressing him.

The indications are all through the project, because of the ease and rapidity with which it has occurred.

“All I have to do is pick up the phone,” he said.

300 to be hired

The Bon Secours complex, which will eventually house 300 employees, will include fully interactive classrooms, dorms, study lounges and offices for staff and engineers.

The former emergency room will become a training area, so former corpsmen and medics can become certified as paramedics, registered nurses and medical technicians.

There will be a traumatic brain injury lab; a culinary academy; a TV studio to create reality shows for veterans, including shows for syndication; a separate “secure” TV studio for classified work; an art studio; a recording studio, where musicians will work on developing new therapies for post-traumatic stress syndrome and traumatic brain injury; and a military museum and gift shop.

USVEI is the parent company for an Events and Promotions arm, a Women’s Construction Corps and the pre-existing Military Musical Tributes, which will use the recording studio, and Military Art Tours, which will use the art studio.

USVEI is also affiliated with the pre-existing Military Association Benefits Group, an organization that provides managed insurance benefits to veterans; for “Now I Understand,” a program through which Butts lectures, runs seminars and produces movies and plays; and STOP, a suicide prevention program for veterans that features a hotline that links vets with others who served in the same branch of the military and still others – also from the same branch – to help those vets solve practical problems like foreclosure threats.

Butts said he doesn’t know how many jobs the enterprises will create eventually.

He declined to divulge information about the financing of the project.

However, the articles of incorporation for USVEI, which was formed in July, show it was organized on a “stock share basis,” with the aggregate number of shares authorized to be 20 million.

There will be no public stock offering, Butts said.

Creative reuse

USVEI has signed an option to buy the Bon Secours property by Jan. 31, according to UPMC Altoona spokesman Dave Cuzzolina.

“We think [USVEI has presented] a creative plan for reusing the hospital site,” Cuzzolina said. “We’re certainly encouraged by the potential benefits it could mean for our country’s veterans.”

Altoona Blair County Development Corp. has not been heavily involved in the creation of the project, according to Patrick Miller, its executive vice president.

Butts was honored as an “American Hero” early last year at one of the inaugural balls marking President Barack Obama’s second term oath of office.

Butts also arranged for the placing of a statue honoring the children of Pennsylvania “fallen warriors” in front of Peoples Natural Gas Field last summer.

USVEI will arrange for comparable or better housing for anyone relocated because of the Bon Secours project, Butts said.

“We’re here to do amazing things for veterans,” Butts said.

“We wish them success,” Cuzzolina said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.