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National veterans program opens location at area college

Veterans Stand Together's East Coast headquarters is located in Alumni Hall at Keystone College.
Keystone College
Veterans Stand Together's East Coast headquarters is located in Alumni Hall at Keystone College.

Veterans Stand Together trains soldiers on how to become a veteran.

"We're prepared for, essentially, for war, for battle," said George Casillas, a veteran of the Marine Corps, and executive director of the organization. “There really isn't an organization out there that trains them for civilian life."

The national nonprofit, called VST, is based in California but recently opened its East Coast headquarters at Keystone College. Casillas and Mark Treston, VST’s chief academic officer, founded the organization during the pandemic in 2020 to provide critical services to veterans. Treston is a 1993 graduate of the college in La Plume Twp. Casillas and Treston operate a security firm in California that employs veterans.

After serving in the Israeli army, Treston enrolled at Keystone. As a nontraditional student he enjoyed that the student body was composed of people at all different stages of their lives.

“That fits very well for veterans," he said. "You can start late and still feel that you're in the community as opposed to other colleges where everybody's 18."

Treston added that Keystone's roots as an institution created to educate veterans of the Civil War as well as their consistent high rankings among higher education institutions serving veterans were draws for VST.

Casillas said after his military service he went 10 years without realizing some of the programs that he, as a veteran, could take advantage of.

Veterans who work with the organization become part of the Milestone System which has seven steps.

“We wanted to build something that allowed us to assess someone for a long duration of time without exiting animal out of our program," said Casillas.

The first step is an assessment of what issues the veteran may be facing including homelessness or substance abuse. Milestone 7 is a graduation of sorts.

“We just want to keep building them up until ... we feel and they feel that they've kind of finally made it," said Daron Hogan, VST's outreach coordinator with Keystone.

VST is also working with Keystone to make military experience more transferable to college.

For example, military medics are certified to perform all sorts of medical and life saving steps, said Hogan, a retired Marine Corps staff sergeant, but when they leave the service they’re not certified as CNAs or EMTS.

"That way, we're one step closer to helping them succeed," he said.

As of Nov. 19, the organization received a proclamation from the Army which allows them to go onto military bases and hold events.

"We, as an organization, want to help them build those soft skills, those career skills ... they already possess the discipline, they possess the the team concept," said Casillas. "A lot of things that were taught in the military we can use in the civilian world but we need certifications and education ... and our organization was built out of that."

Hogan said post-service, it can be difficult for veterans to find people with the same mindset.

“That's what VST offers is just kind of that partnership for veterans that that friend that you need, and that group where you can feel comfortable," he said.

For more details, usavest.org or contact Hogan at daron.hogan@keystone.edu.

Kat Bolus is the community reporter for the newly-formed WVIA News Team. She is a former reporter and columnist at The Times-Tribune, a Scrantonian and cat mom.