Eric Skelton is not your typical college student. Before coming to Maryville, he worked on naval aircraft carriers, had a full-time job in the aviation industry, met the love of his life and welcomed his first child. Now, he’s on campus with the goal of furthering his career. His success is largely due to the fellowship and camaraderie he’s discovered through the Maryville Student Veteran Organization (SVO).
Skelton’s story begins after his high school graduation. He attended a college close to home, where he got mixed up in the wrong crowd. His studies quickly declined, and he was forced to leave school. Looking for a new direction, he decided to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, father and aunt and join the Navy.
Skelton enlisted as an aviation structural mechanic. He would spend the next four years in Japan, working on aircraft carriers stationed at Naval Air Facility Atsugi and then at U.S. Fleet Activities Yokosuka. A normal day was a 12-hour shift on the flight deck working on F-18 fighter jets, building ejection seats, installing air conditioning systems and conducting other routine repairs. In his downtime, Skelton worked out at the gym and studied baseball in his bunk.
The work was rewarding, but Skelton faced challenges. Fellow military personnel in his unit struggled with high anxiety and mental illness. That stress, coupled with the demands of military life and his high-risk job, took their toll. When Skelton returned home to Missouri, he turned to alcohol to help him deal with the loneliness and fear.
“Civilian life didn’t treat me well for a while,” Skelton said. “I battled some personal demons and was going down a hard path until someone took a chance on me.”
That someone was his now fiancée, Tiffany. She encouraged Skelton to seek treatment and helped him secure a job. In the process, Skelton was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. The diagnosis helped him seek out additional help, including being paired with Gemma, a yellow Labrador retriever. Gemma provides support in coping with emotional overload and has greatly contributed to Skelton’s healing.
Shortly thereafter, Skelton found Maryville. He was drawn to the University because of its small student-to-faculty ratio. He also discovered academic programs aligning with his interests. He’s currently majoring in communication and plans to pursue sports journalism after graduation.
While Skelton loves Maryville, he admits the transition to college life was tough because he is older and has more life experience than most students in his classes. “I met some people in class, but I didn’t go out of my way to make new friends. I just wanted to get my schooling done and get good grades,” Skelton said. But this past semester, he learned about the new Maryville SVO, which has brought him out of his shell.
“I met other student veterans, and we have so much in common,” he said. “These men and women are easy to talk to, and we can relate to each other’s experiences. An hour-long conversation feels like just a few minutes.”
Skelton helped organize the group’s first-ever donation drive during the holiday season. Maryville SVO collected arts and crafts supplies, clothing, hygiene items and toys for Youth in Need, a nonprofit organization providing resources for at-risk children and teens. Skelton also helped manage Maryville SVO’s Facebook page and Instagram account to promote the event.
“If you had asked me last year, ‘Would you consider being a member of a student organization?’ I would have told you ‘No,’” Skelton said. “But if I could go back and give myself advice, I would say, ‘Go look into this! Get involved with something around campus. You won’t regret it.’”
This story originally appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of Maryville Magazine.