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Military Appreciation Night

Division II Seeks Ways To Partner With Military For Community Engagement

Ever since Clint Bryant startedthe Military Appreciation Night at Augusta State a quarter-century ago, the event has increasingly become a community celebration.

This season, 100 local Army recruits were sworn in Feb. 8 to the cheers of 3,200 fans during the men’s basketball game at the university now known as Georgia Regents Augusta. During the halftime ceremony, the 1,000 current Army members in attendance recited the Soldier’s Creed, delivering a commanding message of unyielding determination, loyalty and sense of mission. In Augusta, Ga., where nearby Fort Gordon is a local economic hub, celebrating the military is also a celebration of the accomplishments of neighbors and local sons and daughters.

That image is a snapshot of what Bryant, the school’s athletics director, believes could soon be seen at Division II schools across the country. Bryant hosted a summit meeting between U.S. military and Division II leaders in December to discuss a possible partnership. Then, at the NCAA Convention, the Division II Management and Presidents councils approved a pilot program and formation of a task force to determine the initial steps the program could take.

Given his experiences with military partnerships, Bryant sees this latest project as a potentially defining moment in Division II’s community engagement efforts.

“We want to be more than just a game,” Bryant said. “We want to be more than just an event held on an installation. We want it to be a truly comprehensive engagement. I think this is the tip of the iceberg of an effort that could be meaningful for everyone to engage our military in a meaningful relationship with our colleges and universities.”

Bryant, a member of Division II’s 40th Anniversary Team, has built a reputation for that type of forward thinking during his work on Division II’s Planning and Finance Committee and Management Council. His ideas are often strategic with an eye on the bigger picture.

And when Division II held its championships festivals near military installations in recent years, Bryant suggested that the division should partner with the local bases during the event. The idea caught the attention of administrators and gained significant momentum last summer during the Division II Management Council/SAAC Summit.

Smaller partnerships already exist on many campuses. Minnesota Duluth and Columbus State, for example, have each formed partnerships with Operation One Voice, a non-profit organization that supports the families of wounded and fallen special operation forces officers, by offering the use of their facilities and other support.

Bryant believes those partnerships are natural because of the shared values between the military and college athletics – virtues of leadership, loyalty, teamwork and honor that both institutions try to instill in young people. And because many veterans leave the service intending to use their GI Bill to get an education, he believes a partnership with college athletics can create a relationship that eventually guides those veterans through the next stage of their life.

“I’m just excited what this might mean in  our community,” Bryant said. “It’s just something that’s exceptional here, and it just makes sense for us to be partnering and collaborating. Because the same things that the military wants in their development of young soldiers are the exact same things that we’re trying to develop with young student-athletes.”

Those connections are so strong that Bryant believes a partnership could come in multiple areas. The task force must still determine the exact form of the partnership, but Bryant sees the potential for holding games on military bases and for college campuses to host triathlons and military club-sports events. He sees potential in pooling resources to address wellness issues and opportunities to develop leaders through shared examples. Events could be organized around the Wounded Warriors program, which assists injured service members, or for families of military personnel stationed abroad, Bryant said.

“Division II has shown again the ability to think outside the box and think outside of our comfort zones and truly think about what’s important and make intercollegiate athletics about more than the competition,” Bryant said. “I don’t know where this thing is going to end up, but it just looks all positive to me.”