As part of a new fall tradition, in the week leading up to the Nebraska-Iowa football game, student veteran organizations from both campuses raise awareness about veteran suicides by hosting The Things They Carry Ruck March.
The ruck delivers the game-day football across the 325-mile distance between Iowa City and Lincoln. Through the week, the students walk in 20-mile shifts carrying 20-pound backpacks to commemorate the estimated 20 veterans who die by suicide each day.
Omaha-native Gabe Kendall, then a cadet with the Air Force Reserve Officers Training Corps, was inspired by the mission and helped organize a ruck group in his Air Force detachment for the 2021 march. Little did he know that the friendships he made during the march would later help him land an internship needed to graduate on time in May 2022 and accept his commission as a second lieutenant.
Kendall now attends Intelligence School at the Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas.
During his senior year at Nebraska U, a nationally-mandated change in athletic training education forced Kendall to switch majors. And, with the switch came a new 150-hour internship requirement.
“One of the main things our professor wanted was that the internship should apply to your career,” he said. “But what was I going to do that would apply to my planned career as an Air Force officer? I applied for the FBI, the Nebraska State Patrol — literally anything that could remotely be considered part of that. People had already been vying for the internships and the positions I wanted to get into were filled.”
Four weeks into this final semester, Kendall still hadn’t landed an internship. Feeling increasingly desperate, he turned to his new ruck march contacts made through the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Military and Veteran Success Center.
Tom Allison, senior adviser, and Joe Brownell, director, lived up to the center’s motto that, “Success is rarely accomplished alone.” Drawing upon their connections in the military community, they found a placement with the Nebraska Veterans of Foreign Wars Headquarters, where Kendall reported to then-Assistant Adjutant Jeff Baker, now state commander for the Nebraska VFW.
The internship turned out to be a perfect fit. Kendall went from worrying about how he was going to squeeze a 150-hour time commitment into his packed schedule to spending part of each day at the VFW headquarters, 2431 N. 48th St., in Lincoln, helping to update the organization’s bylaws; planning and promoting events and programs; and working with multiple generations of veterans from all branches of the military.
“I started the internship as a requirement for my degree,” he said. “As time progressed, my experience with the VFW shifted to a desire to help those who have previously served.”
Baker said Kendall provided valuable service to the VFW. Although Kendall’s internship was created somewhat by happenstance, the VFW is interested in offering more internship opportunities.
“We considered ourselves very fortunate to connect with Gabe and have him come work with us on multiple projects,” Baker said. “He gave us different insight that we appreciated and could use to grow our program.”
Brownell said the placement shows how every individual and every interaction matters at UNL.
“Anytime we can connect veteran and military students with the VFW, it is a win for everyone,” he said.
Even considering the late start, Kendall quickly met the requirement for 150 hours on the job.
One major project was working on an update of VFW bylaws, with many provisions that dated back to the 1950s or earlier. It was great experience for him because document writing is a significant part of an Air Force officer’s duties.
“The amount of writing and the emphasis on writing is huge. Writing well is how you get your people promoted,” Kendall said. “Not every person gets to plead their case in person — it’s your job as an officer to write the recommendations that make them promotable.”
He also benefited from meeting Vietnam- and Iraq-era non-commissioned officers and enlisted personnel who shared their life experiences and perspectives on what makes a good officer and a good leader.
“This was real world stuff,” Kendall said of his VFW experience. “It’s helped me on a day-to-day basis. I think it will make me a better officer in the future.”
Other students may want to consider working for or interning with the State VFW, he said.
“I was in a weird predicament — a lot of majors don’t require an internship,” he said. “The ruck march was my first experience with the Military and Veterans Success Center. It all led to experiences I continue to use today. It influenced the way I think about things now and the way I approach new tasks and people.”