Mike Kepner ’19MA does not intend to stand out. Yet the precision in his posture and cordiality in his voice are impossible to miss. You notice as he welcomes students into a relaxing office next to Addition Financial Arena. He offers them quiet places to study, something to drink, and space to be themselves.
The students exhibit the same characteristics. Humble. Selfless. Polite. They don’t want to stand out either.
“But you can notice who we are,” Kepner says of the approximately 1,400 student veterans at UCF. “For one thing, we’re typically older than most students.”
Before accepting the position as director of UCF’s Office of Military and Veteran Student Success (formerly known as VARC), Kepner earned a master’s in educational leadership from UCF. He started the program in 2017, with students who weren’t yet born when he began his career as an officer in the U.S. Army. He’d already served for 23 years, seeing the world not as a tourist but as a protector of freedom — sometimes in a blizzard of enemy gunfire.
“I’m familiar with the types of life experiences our student veterans have had,” Kepner says. “It’s why this space is so valuable. They need a place to be themselves with people who have worn the same uniform.”
Kepner was deployed four times to Iraq. His first tour came during the first moments of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, and on his final tour he literally turned off the lights at the Joint Operations Center in Kuwait, signifying an end to the U.S. military’s mission. He also had several humanitarian deployments, including to Haiti following the devastating earthquake in 2010.
Anyone other than a veteran cannot comprehend what it’s like to lift people up through trauma, build their trust, and literally make the world a better place — all while being targeted. And then, when it’s over, comes one of the biggest challenges of all.
“The transition from active service to the civilian world can be difficult,” Kepner says. “We’re here to support student veterans through the transition.”
His office could very well be the most naturally diverse office on campus. Kepner says it’s a reflection of the U.S. military. There’s no distinction between Black, Latino, Asian, Pacific Islander, man or woman who walks through the doors.
“We’re all bound together by a unity of purpose,” Kepner says. “Everyone matters in the military, and I see that same type of environment in this university too.”
He’s had discussions with UCF President Alexander N. Cartwright about UCF being the most veteran inclusive campus in Florida, if not the nation. “Dr. Cartwright leads those conversations,” Kepner says. “It means a lot to know how strongly he believes in building up the university’s programs for student veterans.”
Those initiatives include UCF RESTORES, which helps veterans and first responders suffering from PTSD. The Community Veterans History Project invites veterans to share their oral histories. UCF celebrated the 50th anniversary of its Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps Detachment 19 program this year. For the 2022-23 school year, UCF has earned a Silver Award on the list of Military Friendly Schools. And on Nov. 16, UCF will accept a Purple Heart Designation from the Military Order of the Purple Heart.
“It’s a recognition that UCF is serious about promoting the well-being of veterans,” Kepner says, “not just academically but in life.”
Kepner is pretty sure Purple Heart recipients have come through the doors at the MVSC, but he only knows two by name. They, and others, could be in any classroom at UCF. Like all 1,400 veterans on campus, they do not seek attention.
“I know David Spang is one,” Kepner says, “but I don’t know the details of his story.”
David Spang does not expect a “thank you,” though he’s among the 1,400 student veterans at UCF who certainly deserve it.
“In military training, we call it being a gray man,” says Spang, who now serves as president of UCF’s Student Veterans Association. “It’s about being a blended color and not standing out. We’re all around, but you wouldn’t know it.”
Spang, 32, could have used a Purple Heart waiver to pay for his tuition at UCF, but he kept it in in his back pocket until this, his final semester in the mechanical engineering program. This has been the next phase of what he calls his “rocketry track,” which has already led to a job with aerospace and defense giant Northrop Grumman, and perhaps, hopefully, NASA.
The early part of Spang’s track, however, was hardly smooth. He enlisted in the U.S. Air Force out of high school because he didn’t want to wrestle with college debt. Instead, he decided to train for the hardest job in the U.S. Air Force: combat control technician. He learned to jump from planes, to survey assault zones, to scuba dive, to direct soldiers to take cover from fire and to perform air traffic control duties from austere environments that are nothing like comfortable towers.
“I wanted to wear the scarlet beret,” Spang says of the headgear that only 400 active combat control technicians had earned when he began training.
After earning the scarlet beret, Spang was deployed three times to Afghanistan and once to Iraq. He immediately found the reality of combat far different from the training. Danger from ISIS and the Taliban lurked everywhere — along remote roads and in busy villages. One day, while handing out pens and pencils to some children, an enemy combatant tossed a grenade toward him. The explosion blew shrapnel into his leg.
“The main objective for these people,” Spang says, “is to find a path into civilian life and to become a contributing member of society.” — David Spang, UCF student veteran
“The injury didn’t bother me nearly as much as the realization that someone would be willing to put kids in the direct line of fire,” Spang says.
This is how the gray man thinks — the mission is about others. Spang’s dad has his Purple Heart. The beret sits on a shelf. The rest of his awards and decorations are in the back of a closet.
At UCF, Spang is active on an online discord for student veterans, though the details of their missions are rarely part of the conversations.
“The main objective for these people,” Spang says, “is to find a path into civilian life and to become a contributing member of society.”
Kepner says he has the best job at UCF. He helps the gray men and women navigate college en route to successful careers. He’s seen the flipside. Before this role at the MVSC, Kepner worked for an organization that supports homeless veterans in Orlando.
“I don’t want a single student veteran at UCF to wind up in that situation,” he says. “It’s an honor to help them.”
Rich Sloane says he used to have the best job at UCF. He spent 27 years in the U.S. Navy before retiring in the Orlando area. One day into retirement, Sloane received an offer to work in community relations for what’s now the university’s College of Community Innovation and Education. It became his civilian job for the next 18 years. He’d watch military ceremonies and see ROTC cadets running on campus, and he was there when the Office of Military and Veteran Student Success opened.
“UCF prides itself on being the leading partnership university in the nation,” Sloane says. “The more time you spend here, the more you realize the partnership with veterans is just as important as any partnership.”
A few years ago, Sloane was asked to share his story of service with the Community Veterans History Project. He spent 30 minutes talking about volunteering to serve in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War, patrolling murky rivers, avoiding sniper fire, losing five sailors in his unit, and feeling shrapnel in his own flesh.
“I believe UCF students understand much better the value of veterans than students did in my day,” says Sloane. “They realize these are people of service — and that serve is the key word.”
Sloane began the application process for UCF’s Purple Heart Designation three years ago. He did it because, as a Purple Heart recipient, he sees the university’s genuine respect for veterans, or as he calls it, “a hand extended to say, ‘We’re all in this together.’”
More gray men and women will sit in the front rows of classes today. Some will walk unnoticed along Knights Plaza and enter the MVSC. They will be welcomed inside like brothers and sisters to a place where they can relax, be themselves, and feel at home.