Tsunamis to Service Dogs: Student Veteran Continues to Help Others

From aiding efforts in Japan after the 2011 tsunami as a US Navy diver to tutoring fellow student veterans at UT, Alex Weber has always had a desire to serve and help others.

Weber, a native of Giles County, Tennessee, is now a senior majoring in electrical engineering.

Weber joined the Navy straight out of high school in 2005. He worked as an electrician’s mate before becoming a member of the Navy’s dive team.

Alex Weber, center, swims through a dive tank at NASA's Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory in Houston, Texas. Weber, now a UT senior, was training NASA divers for future capsule recovery missions.

Alex Weber, center, swims through a dive tank at NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory in Houston, Texas. Weber, now a UT senior, was training NASA divers for future capsule recovery missions.

He enrolled in UT in 2015 after leaving the Navy and experienced firsthand the many challenges veterans face in transitioning back to being a civilian and becoming a full-time student.

“Questions about where to go, what to do, how to rediscover your social and educational skills are things that plague all veterans,” said Weber. “Having support for veterans is critical.”

Navy Veteran, and former Navy Diver Alex Weber dives in the student Aquatic Center diving well.

Veteran and former Navy diver Alex Weber dives in the Aquatic Center diving well.

Weber has now turned his attention to his fellow veterans, drawing on his own experiences to help them navigate everything from funding to finding the support they need to succeed.

He helps tutor other UT vets through the Veterans Pre-college Program, a US Department of Education program. He also fosters dogs for placement with vets as part of post-traumatic stress disorder programs through Smoky Mountain Service Dogs.

“Veterans can have any number of stresses that, by their training, they keep hidden,” said Weber. “PTSD dogs are a great way of helping alleviate that.”

Last summer, he took an alternative summer break trip to Ecuador with fellow Tickle College of Engineering students through the college’s Global Initiatives program.

The group helped build a stone bridge and pathway in the Yana Cocha Animal Sanctuary, a rescue and rehabilitation facility for exotic animals that have been confiscated from traffickers, surrendered by owners, or turned loose by people who either stole or purchased them.

Weber and his engineering peers recently started a maker club devoted to finding new ways of producing goods. Their first task is developing a way of 3D printing prosthetic limbs for children.

Alex Weber works in the Tickle College of Engineering 3 D modeling lab.

Veteran and former Navy diver Alex Weber works in the Tickle College of Engineering 3 D modeling lab.

Returning to the Water

After graduating in spring 2018, Weber plans a return to the ocean—this time with machinery doing the diving.

He hopes to work on underwater rovers and potentially start his own deep-sea robotics company one day.

“I’d love to help continue that research, maybe work with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration in developing and deploying that kind of technology,” said Weber. “There are still a lot of things unknown about the ocean, and I think my background would help me make a difference in those efforts.”

His work as a Navy diver took him to seven continents. Two missions stand out: going to Japan to aid in search and recovery efforts after the tsunami, and going to Vietnam to help recover and identify remains of US soldiers.

In Japan, Weber and his dive mates had the grim task of recovering bodies taken by the sea while working amid the massive debris field left in the tsunami’s wake.

In the midst of the devastation, he found that the warmth of the Japanese people was amazing.

“Even with their families, friends, and possessions gone, the people of Japan went out of their way to make us feel welcome,” said Weber. “We’re talking about people who had nothing left to give yet gave us all they could. Their gratitude was unreal.”

In Vietnam, Weber and the team scoured rivers and mud that was 10 feet deep at times to recover the bodies of American soldiers and pilots and bring them home.

Again, it was gratitude—not the gravity of the situation—that he remembers the most.

“I got a handwritten letter about helping do what I did in Vietnam,” said Weber. “That’s better than any medal or ribbon I could ever receive.”

Weber is one of 975 veterans, military spouses, and dependents studying at UT this fall on benefits from the US Department of Veterans Affairs.

UT ranks 31st among all public universities in the U.S. News and World Report’s 2017 Best Colleges for Veterans and has received several distinctions for being a veteran-friendly university, including the VETS designation announced last year and being named a Purple Heart University in 2014.

CONTACT:

David Goddard (865-974-0683, david.goddard@utk.edu)