MANATEE -- Inspired by his father who fought in World War II, retired U.S. Marine Lt. Gen. Martin Steele is continuing to serve his country by helping veterans.
Steele, the University of South Florida’s executive director of military partnerships, spoke to more than 50 members and guests of the Bradenton Kiwanis at their Tuesday meeting about how USF helps veterans transition back into communities. Steele’s address was part of the Kiwanis’ commemoration of Independence Day.
Steele said he has such a “great appreciation for freedom,” and the Fourth of July because his father was a World War II military pilot who was shot down while flying over France and was taken prisoner by the Germans.
He would have turned 90 on Tuesday. “The fourth and fifth of July were special days in our household,” said Steele.
Steel told the crowd his father rarely, if ever, shared his remembrances about being a prisoner. Yet, without words, it helped shape the rest of Steele’s life. Steele enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1965 and went on to serve more than 34 years, serving three tours on two continents.
“Freedom meant a lot to my father,” said Steele. “He was adversely affected by his captivity.”
As Steele reflected on his father’s legacy, he also saw that those who were called “the greatest generation” faced unique challenges upon returning home.
“So many of that greatest generation are still trying to forget,” said Steele.
It inspired Steele to do something about it. The current war has been ongoing for 10 years, and like veterans before them, today’s veterans have been significantly affected by multiple tours serving their country. They return with not just the mental scars of war, but physical impairments that will impact their way of life, the rest of their lives.
“They deserve every benefit we can give them,” said Steele. “We have an opportunity to help them.”
Through programs and education, USF is providing guidance and tools to ensure their success and help their transition back to society, he said. Currently, USF has 1,000 students who are veterans and ranks No. 8 out of 4,000 colleges and universities in the country as being “veteran friendly.”
But Steele believes USF can be No. 1 in helping veterans. It is his hope in the near future to collaborate with businesses, and various military branches and organizations to develop a research center at USF specifically devoted to helping veterans, specifically veterans with traumatic brain injuries and post traumatic stress disorder. While expanding business, technical and enterprise opportunities for veterans through education, the center could help veterans transition back into communities.
“What we’re doing is a Herculean effort to shape the future,” Steele said. “We need to help preserve our way of life as we move into the 21st century.”
Kiwanis member Byron Shinn, whose father also was a prisoner of war during World War II, applauded Steele for his vision. He called Steele a “natural born leader” who is “doing a lot for veterans.”
“We need more resources,” he said. “There isn’t enough done for veterans. They took care of us, now it’s our turn to take care of them.”