Joshua Shepherd knows what military men and women go through, both physically and emotionally, both during and after their time in the service. He’s been there. Now, he devotes a significant amount of his time as a student at ETSU helping his fellow veterans.
Shepherd, a Mountain City native, is a freshman political science major at ETSU after serving five years in the U.S. Air Force. He enlisted in 2009 as an aerospace propulsion systems specialist and worked on aircraft engines in South Dakota for three years. His unit remained stateside but played an important role in Operation Odyssey Dawn in support of the 2011 international military operation in Libya to enforce United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973.
Later, a workplace accident left Shepherd so highly sensitive to aircraft fuel that he could not be around it for any length of time. However, having noted his leadership skills, the Air Force gave him the opportunity to retrain instead of discharging him, and he landed an emergency management position at Air Mobility Command, reporting directly to the Department of Defense.
When his job was among those cut during the military cutbacks of 2013, Shepherd was not happy, but came to realize that “it was a blessing in disguise.”
“I was suffering from a lot of the same mental health things that many service men and women start to develop,” he said. “Over the past year, I’ve been able to fight that, and I wouldn’t have been able to if I’d still been in the military.
“My big mission now is helping veterans out. Veteran suicides this year are at 23 per day, and our nation’s male homeless population is 33 percent veterans. I think that’s uncalled for. These folks fought – and still fight – mental illness and depression on a day-to-day basis, and I understand how dangerous it can be. I want to help as much as I can.”
Shepherd does just that as president of the Student Veterans Association and as a voting member of the Veterans Affairs Standing Committee at ETSU, where he plays a role in establishing university policies that affect veterans. He has helped to start a Vet-Friendly initiative on campus, which he describes as a “safe zone for veterans.”
He has also found a unique way to help by coordinating the ETSU Community Garden with the Department of Sustainability.
“Gardening is proven to relieve stress,” Shepherd said. “I was hoping that with a veteran in charge of the garden, it would help push more vets to get into stuff like that and other hobbies. It’s a lot less dangerous than to be left to our own devices.”
ETSU has been recognized for five consecutive years as “Military Friendly” by G.I. Jobs magazine, and Shepherd agrees.
“I would definitely say this is the most veteran-friendly campus I’ve seen, and I looked at schools nationwide,” he said.
In addition, Shepherd appreciates the small class sizes that have helped foster good relationships with his professors, as well as the location of the school. “I’m an hour from anything I could possibly fathom wanting to do, yet I’m also an hour from getting away from absolutely everything.”
After completing his degree at ETSU, Shepherd aspires to enter the U.S. Marshals Service and perhaps attend law school, or to work with a health foundation, a conservation effort or a veterans’ organization.
“I always figure there are two things that can’t help themselves, and it’s everyone else’s duty to look out for them, and those are children and animals,” says Shepherd, who calls himself a “softie.”
“I have the look of a tough guy without any emotions, especially because I’m 6-foot-2, 240 pounds, and I’ve got a Mohawk and a beard,” he said. “People look at me like I’m a tough guy, but I’m definitely a softie. My best friend is my four-year-old little brother, Tucker. He’s just a cool dude.”
Shepherd, a Shriner, explained that Tucker was born with a birth defect that has required several surgeries, which have been taken care of by the Shriners Hospitals for Children.
“He’s tougher than I ever was,” Shepherd said. “He’s mean, and I like it!”