Veterans, college students revive broken down ‘cool bus’

School bus (minus some letters) is now in service to veterans of military service

Veterans, college students revive broken down ‘cool bus’

Giving people are happy people.

But when a beaten down yellow bus showed up at Southeast Technical College in need of rejuvenation, staff and students had to question if the project, benefiting veterans, would bring joy or drill it out of all involved.

“Ignition was drilled out. Somebody had tried to take the bus,” instructor Josh Garcia said. “We realized we’re dealing with a few other problems in it. Going through some of the lights. Some of the windows. We had some door issues with the handicapped ramp in the back.”

Garcia, along with students like Nathan Mithun, donated countless hours of labor, learning transportation technology skills along the way, to bring the bus back to life.

“I’m a big supporter of our military and I feel like our vets deserve something to help them unwind. In any way I can help that’d be great,” Mithun said.

Meant to be a surprise gift and destined to carry veterans, some with disabilities, for Wings of Valor Lodge in Parker, South Dakota, there was no stopping the restoration.

Renovating the ‘cool bus’

A tough outlook yet with a positive spin.

“So, we’ve got the ‘cool bus’ here,” Garcia said pointing to the bus’s backside missing letters S and H.

All in all, people from four different departments at Southeast Tech would play a significant role in the repair from late 2021 to early 2023.

“We replaced the ignition. Got it to run but it ran real rough and the gas in it really smelled bad,” Garcia said.

Contributors even had military connections.

“I was in the Army for four years. I was deployed to Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne Division,” Garcia said.

“That was kind of the hard thing to swallow when I got out. It was like, wow. I was operating way up here and I’ll just probably never get to hit that peak again. I look back on it and say, at least I hit the peak.”

Find support for veterans: Care and careers at Sanford Health

Now the combat veteran turned instructor is building a new life with the help of his peers.

“That’s probably been the largest success for me as far as coming back and reintegrating into society. You have to connect with those people that have been through those similar experiences because there’s nobody else that’s going to understand what you went through except for that guy (or girl). He might be struggling. You might be struggling,” Garcia said.

Painting a new future for a broken vessel.

And revealing a work in progress that can still make a difference.

Surprising Wings of Valor

When it came time to surprise Wings of Valor CEO Bruce Weller this January, the shop at Southeast Tech was packed with supporters.

“Oh, it exceeded my expectations in different ways,” said Paul Weckman, Sanford Health head of veteran and military affairs.

Weckman served as project manager and parts fundraiser. He’s also on the board at the South Dakota Military Heritage Alliance. The Alliance is the organization donating the bus.

“Physically we have a bus now that’s turnkey operational and can do the job. That’s just not the whole story. It’s how we have young kids as I call them, 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds probably for the first time have had an experience of community outreach and helping other people,” Weckman said.

Alliance founder and chairman Stacy Kooistra says, “to see those groups standing in a room and gifting this bus to the guys who are taking their time to try and provide this experience for veterans, a lot of which is rehabilitative and cathartic, it’s just amazing.”

The bus will transport veterans from the hunting lodge to the field.

“So really what we have at Wings of Valor is veterans helping veterans. All we really do is provide a place for that to happen. We have the pheasant hunting. We have some deer hunting. That’s what draws them in but when they get there I like to say, they do all the heavy lifting,” Weller said.

“We’re in our third year as a nonprofit. By the end of the year we will have served over 400 veterans. Which is pretty cool.”

‘Service to our community is key to everything we do’

A cool mission for a “cool bus” the community is rallying behind.

“Service to our community is key to everything we do,” Southeast Tech VP of academic affairs Benjamin Valdez said. “We want to install that both within our faculty and staff and also our students. It’s always that giving back that makes everything worthwhile.

“Very, very proud of the students here at Southeast and of the staff.”

They’re getting the message and writing their own. Before turning the transport over to Wings of Valor, those involved in the project wrote messages inside the bus to veterans.

“I can tell you this, without a doubt, when a veteran sees those notes, it’s very personal to them. They take it that way and they see it as a note of gratitude for their service, for what they’ve done to make this country what it is. This great country that we live in,” Weller said.

Garcia says, “giving back to those guys that went through similar experiences like I did, it’s huge. I couldn’t think of anything better to do than that.”

From the shop to the field, giving veterans a shot at coming home.

“Giving people are happy people. I want all those students to remember that because it’s very true,” Weller said.

Learn more

Posted In Community, Here for all. Here for good., Sioux Falls, Veterans