Retired Brig. Gen. William Bester says his original motive in joining the Army Student Nurse Program was to help pay for his education at the College of St. Scholastica.
But the three-year obligation became a lifelong career for the West Duluth native, taking him around the world and ultimately resulting in him being named the 21st chief of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps. Now living with his wife, Cheryl, in Palm Springs, Calif., the 68-year-old Bester remains passionate about veterans issues and nursing. For the past four years, he has combined those passions working with his alma mater in implementing a grant to train military veterans for nursing careers.
Back this week for work on that program, Bester will give a talk on Wednesday about the impact of 18 years of continuous war on society, education for veterans and other topics.
During a phone conversation on Friday, Bester gave the News Tribune a sneak preview. What follows is a condensed transcript:
Question: How did growing up in Duluth and attending St. Scholastica shape your life?
Answer: I grew up in West Duluth out by the zoo. I always have told people I had a great childhood. I grew up in a neighborhood with a lot of kids, so we played a lot of baseball in the street and we ran down to the local hockey rinks and played hockey. I'm the oldest of seven children. I went to (the University of Minnesota Duluth) for three years. I was floundering around, and I discovered the field of nurse anesthesia. So I switched and moved from UMD over to St. Scholastica to pursue nursing. It really took me six years to get a four-year degree.
Question: Could you talk about the impact of continuous war on society and veterans?
Answer: It's been an interesting time, I think, in American history, because we've been at war for 18 years now - the longest war in American history. But the reality is, a far lower percentage of Americans have served in the military during these 18 years than compared to any other wars we've been in in the past. For example, in World War II we had over 11 percent of the American population serving in uniform. Then in Vietnam about 4½ percent of the American population served in uniform. In today's environment over the last 18 years, less than 1 percent, actually about .5 percent of Americans have served in uniform. So I think the American public in a lot of ways is not familiar with both the physical and the invisible wounds of war that a lot of these folks are coming home with. If we send these folks off to war, I think we have an obligation to care for them when they come back to war.
Question: Are we failing to meet that obligation?
Answer: I think we're making a great effort at it. The (Veterans Administration) does a great job of caring for our veterans, in my mind. But the VA was never funded for, or physically structured to care for, all of the veterans in this country. There's about 20 million veterans in the country, and there's about 9 million who are enrolled in the VA. A lot of them receive their care there, but a lot don't, also. About 6½ million actually receive their care in the VA systems. That means that we've got probably around 14 million veterans who are embedded in these small communities all around the country, and how do we address the issue of caring for their health care needs in this civilian community?
Question: In your career, have you witnessed veterans either getting or failing to get the care they need?
Answer: When they don't get the care they need, a lot of times it's actually tied to the fact that society may not know that they're struggling with a certain issue. (Post traumatic stress disorder) is a good example. How do you identify the individual who is struggling with PTSD if they don't come forward and tell you? The military health care system is very focused on these issues because that's what we do. The VA also is very focused on these issues. (But) a lot of civilian providers aren't trained specifically in the health care needs of veterans. So how do we identify the resources available to these veterans so these civilian health care providers can direct them to the resources they need?
Question: So the need is to get that knowledge to those civilian providers?
Answer: Right. And I want to be clear about that, too. There's been a great movement, especially in the last 5 to 10 years, to try to better educate civilian health care providers in some of the needs of those veterans who are exiting from the military. The American Academy of Nursing back in 2015 started a program called "Have you ever served in the military?" That was a push to try to get providers to ask every patient if they've ever served in the military. And then if they respond "Yes," we sent out some small cards that they can ask additional questions and then hopefully be able to direct those folks to the right resources. Some hospital systems are starting to embed that in their initial questionnaire for patients.
Question: Could you talk about your work in providing educational opportunities for veterans?
Answer: What I've been involved in with Scholastica over the last four years is they received a pretty significant grant that focuses on trying to recruit veterans into the profession of nursing. It was actually a three-year grant that they got a year extension. Their grant will be over this summer, and one of the things we're going to talk about when I'm up there with the college leadership is how will we sustain this program without any grant funding. (The program) pursues veterans who have some pretty good experience to try to consider nursing as a profession. We've built a model at Scholastica. We've hired a couple of veterans who are on the nursing faculty. Each year, this group of veterans is mentored and supported by the veteran faculty members and other faculty and staff members. And it provides a little special attention to these veterans and helps them transition from the military environment back to civilian environment and then even more so to the college environment. What it allows these veterans to do is interact with each other because they've all had similar experiences.
If you go
What: Talk by Brig. Gen. William Bester, ret. U.S. Army, on "The military's influence on health care innovation."
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Burns Wellness Commons lecture hall (Room 249), College of St. Scholastica
Price: Free and open to the public