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The path that brought Jon Dennington here was anything but usual.
Dennington, his wife Rachel and their three children moved from North Carolina to Grand Forks this past summer to complete the final two years of what he hopes will be a degree in aviation management.
As a disabled veteran, he receives assistance through the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) vocational rehabilitation program.
“I’m 37 years old and this will be my first degree,” Dennington said. “It’s time that I have a degree where I can provide for my family.”
In its 2010 guide, G.I. Jobs Magazine named UND one of the top “military-friendly schools” in the nation. Dennington agrees.
“UND’s veteran friendly,” he said. “I’m considered handicapped, and the campus is certainly disabled veteran friendly. And accessible.”
A veteran of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Dennington admits that he was bitter after being honorably discharged from the U.S. Army.
“The military was being downsized, and because I tore up my knees in the Airborne jumping out of airplanes, they decided they couldn’t use me any more,” he explained. “I didn’t want any benefits. I never pursued the GI Bill.”
Although he didn’t know it then, Dennington’s journey to North Dakota began in late August 2005 when Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast. He and his family were living in southern Arkansas. The hurricane tore the roof off the home they were in the process of buying.
Unfortunately, Arkansas didn’t qualify for federal disaster assistance. The Denningtons planned to leave their children in North Carolina with Jon’s parents while they returned to Arkansas to live in a tent and repair their home. But that plan went awry when a collision with a deer totaled their car.
“We kind of got stuck in North Carolina,” he said. “My parents made the best of it.”
At an air show at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina, Dennington stopped at a UND booth. There, he learned about an aviation program offered in partnership with a local community college.
“I decided that was something I’d like to do,” he said. “I was no longer eligible for the GI Bill, but I was eligible for a VA vocational rehabilitation program. They paid for my tuition and my books, and also provided a living stipend to make it easier.”
He enrolled, started school in fall 2006, and began flight training for a degree in aviation management. In spring 2008, the Denningtons prepared to move to Grand Forks where Jon would complete the final two years of his degree.
Fate intervened. An auto accident left him in a coma for three weeks and Rachel hospitalized for six months. It would be another year before Dennington could resume work on his degree.
Throughout the ordeal, Dennington found helping hands at UND.
“Everybody who worked with me was so great,” he said. “The housing office was fantastic. They put me back up to the top of the list for this year. The admissions office jumped through hoops to get me here.”
The family arrived in Grand Forks the evening of June 26.
“Everybody is so friendly,” he said. “It’s been fantastically easy, and Grand Forks is a beautiful city.”
The Denningtons received additional assistance from UND during their transition.
“I contacted Carol Anson (in UND Veteran Services), who helped get my VA health care set up and set me up with a vocational rehab counselor in Fargo. If I have any questions, I contact her and she points me in the right direction.”
Because Rachel is in a wheelchair while convalescing from her injuries, handicapped access to the family’s on-campus apartment is essential. Within a day after Jon contacted UND housing, a ramp was installed in the parking lot.
It’s been a long and difficult journey, but Dennington is confident his decision to attend UND was the best one for him and his family.
“When I saw the UND booth at the air show, I researched it and decided that this was a great school, one of the top aviation schools in the country,” he said. “All along, I knew I was coming here.”