TAMPA — It's a safe zone for veterans.
The University of South Florida dedicated its new 3,000-square-foot Veterans Achievement Center on Thursday during a ceremony at the school's Tampa campus. The center is in the John and Grace Allen building in space adjacent to the USF Office of Veterans Services.
The center has a large-screen TV, comfortable chairs, a computer area, a counseling room, a microwave, a refrigerator, a conference room and a lounge area. The walls feature murals depicting historic uniforms from all branches of the military.
Larry Braue, a retired Army officer who is director of the Veterans Services office, said the space allows veterans to hang out with other veterans, sharing experiences and taking comfort from those who can most identify with them.
"It's a place where they can be themselves," he said.
About 1,700 veterans attend USF, out of a total enrollment of 47,000, according to Braue. That's more than double the number who attended the university in 2008.
About 1,300 of those veterans are using G.I. Bill benefits, which help with tuition, housing and book costs.
USF is one of the few universities in the nation with a standalone veterans department and is just one of a handful of schools that partner with the Pat Tillman veteran scholarship foundation. Tillman, who quit the National Football League to enlist in the Army, was killed in Afghanistan in 2004.
"We take care of one another," USF president Judy Genshaft told veterans who attended Thursday's ceremony. "You take care of us. We take care of you. … As student veterans, you have only begun to write your story. You enrich the lives of our students, our professors, our staff."
Genshaft noted that USF was ranked fifth among the country's most veteran-friendly schools by Military Times Edge magazine. Concord University, a small liberal arts college in West Virginia founded by Union and Confederate veterans of the Civil War, stands atop the list.
Tarpon Springs resident and Medal of Honor recipient Ronald Ray also attended the ceremony.
He recounted how he became a University of Tampa student after his service in Vietnam, later obtaining a master's degree at the University of Oklahoma.
He went on to serve as an assistant secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs and a special assistant to the U.S. secretary of commerce. Ray said it was his education that made the greatest impact on his life.
"That's why I'm successful today," he said. "Not because I was a soldier."