Every November, the front lawn of Merced College transforms into a patriotic sea of red, white, and blue.
For the week leading up to Veterans Day, recognized each year on Nov. 11, the Merced Sunrise Rotary orchestrates the Field of Honor — a display of American flags that pays homage to veterans, active military members, and first responders.
“Each flag represents a life and a family,” said Sunrise Rotary President Regina Cherf, who had a 38-year career in the Air Force.
This striking visual also symbolizes Merced College’s dedication to supporting students who are veterans and first responders. The district redoubled that commitment in 2017, when it remodeled and renamed its veterans support home as the 1st Lt. Peter J. Gallo Veterans Resource Center (VRC).
“Having this center on campus is not only amazing, it’s essential,” VRC Student Services Coordinator Dustin Thompson said. “It allows those individuals a space to be themselves, to connect with people who have been in their shoes.”
The weeklong celebration kicked off Nov. 5 with the Run for the Fallen, a 5K Run/Walk or 10K that featured music from the Merced Children’s Holiday Choir. Sunrise Rotary members and local boy scouts will also stage a Flag Retirement ceremony, for tattered or torn flags, on Nov. 9 at 6:30 p.m. The closing ceremonies will be held at the Field of Honor on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, at 11 a.m.
The college also hosted roughly 1,200 Merced City Schools 8th-graders from Cruickshank, Hoover, Rivera and Tenaya middle schools to see the Field of Honor display and tour the campus. Sunrise Rotary members and docents Jesus Deniz, Glenn Galman, Connie Owens, Brian Reid, Aggie Freeman and Dewayne Young now run tours with students every year, then hand them off to Thompson, who guides them around campus, often for the first time.
Field of Honor Committee Chair Darrell Cherf, the Sunrise Rotary Assistant Governor and husband to Regina Cherf, remembers when people were skeptical about the initial Field of Honor in 2013 because of the cost, so former president Tim O’Neil began recruiting sponsors.
The display was never meant to make money, but now it does. That allows the group to reinvest in the community via grants, and funds also go to help buy uniforms for local Explorers (a law enforcement enrichment program) and provide scholarships to local students.
Thompson embraces being one of the more than 150 Field of Honor volunteers as an extension of his work with the VRC.
And it is important work. Merced College student Rachel Dumpit, an Army veteran and one of the 129 veteran students using the center this fall, says Thompson is the center’s heart and soul.
“Our biggest resource is Dustin,” said Dumpit, who has also worked at the VRC since 2020. “Sometimes I feel like he lives here. He knows so much, and he makes people feel at ease.”
In 2013, Thompson and his wife, who was finishing her B.A., were living across the street from the college. Thompson, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, was searching for his next move. They looked out the window and figured, “Why not?”
Thompson started work study at the VRC in 2013. He earned an AA-T in Kinesiology at Merced College and a B.S. in Exercise Science at Fresno State, becoming a part-time employee at Merced College 2014 and a full-timer in 2018.
He was there to help Dumpit, who enrolled to study environmental sciences in Fall 2020 and was immediately surprised by the challenge.
“All of those remote learning systems were new to me,” she said. “But it was fairly easy to get going because I had a lot of support. … The VRC has given me a sense of community.”
Last spring, Merced College also established an official partnership with the Veterans Administration health care system. Twice each month, a licensed psychologist comes to the VRC to work with student veterans.
“They don’t have to wait to be seen elsewhere,” Thompson said. “It’s incredible. And the word has gotten out. We have more and more students coming to see them.”
The VRC delivers academic counseling, financial aid and tutoring, as well as guidance on how to receive veterans’ benefits. The center also gives tangible support with school supplies, computers, access to the college’s food pantry and more.
“No one is getting lost in the process, going from location to location,” Thompson said. “We don’t want anything to deter them from coming to campus. We create a welcoming environment, from the first time they visit the office until they walk across the stage at graduation.”
Thompson, Dumpit and the Cherfs all focus on veterans in their work, so the Field of Honor both shows respect for veterans and buoys these people who support them.
“I’ve learned so much about our community through this process,” Thompson said. “It’s fascinating.”
Added Darrell Cherf, an Air Force veteran, “There are so many amazing stories that without the field we wouldn’t even know about. It’s moving to see what our community members have done for the world.”