When U.S. Army veteran Brandon Tester was looking for a career change that would be less stressful and with better hours than his work with the Virginia State Police, he turned to Laurel Ridge.
“My buddy went to school using the G.I. Bill and talked me into it,” he said. “I was nervous because this was my first time attending college at the age of 33.”
Tester is pursuing his associate degree in applied science, and plans to transfer to Brightpoint Community College to finish its funeral directing program and become a licensed funeral director. This role will see him handle all aspects of the funeral process, from embalming and preparing bodies for funerals, to working with grieving family members.
He hopes to work at the local funeral home in Luray, and this is another way he can continue his life of service to others. Three weeks after graduating from Page County High School in 2008, Tester left for basic training with the U.S. Army. He served for the next five years.
While deployed to Afghanistan as a combat engineer with a security detail, Tester suffered a traumatic brain injury after his truck struck an improvised explosive device. He joined the Virginia State Police in 2013 after leaving the Army.
“I wanted to find something less stressful, with a little better schedule than police work,” he said.
After learning about all the benefits of the G.I. Bill, Tester decided to resign from the VSP in 2022 and enroll in Laurel Ridge in search of a career change. The G.I. Bill pays for Tester’s classes and his books. His wife Meagen, a licensed practical nurse, is studying medical billing and coding at Laurel Ridge also. The couple have been married for 13 years and have three children.
Tester said he has found the transition from being a first responder to being a student an easy one. He had previous experience with Laurel Ridge, having come to the college for career fairs while working as a Virginia State Police recruiter. The TBI and PTSD that Tester has can make school difficult at times, but he has learned to adapt and succeed in all of his classes.
He has also taken advantage of the Veterans Center at the Fauquier Campus. The center at that campus, along with the one at the Middletown Campus, is a place where veterans can get together and share fellowship, have some snacks and coffee or tea, use the computers and receive free printing. The Veterans Centers are also where Laurel Ridge’s student veterans can meet with veteran academic advisor Jeanmarie Corrado and school certifying official Sharon Painter.
“Laurel Ridge’s Veterans Center has made my transition into college a very simple and easy one,” said Tester. “Sharon and Jeanmarie have helped me in many ways here at Laurel Ridge and their assistance has helped me succeed.”
There is another way Tester is able to continue serving – this time his fellow veterans. When he was applying for services he was entitled to due to the injuries he obtained while in Afghanistan, he found the process difficult to navigate.
“I decided to teach myself, and started helping out a couple of my friends,” said Tester, who is the service officer for VFW Post 621 in Luray. “Now, I’ve helped out hundreds of vets, including students here.”
It can be especially hard for older veterans to navigate the online process of seeking help with their U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs benefits.
“I will do everything for them,” Tester said. “I create an account for them online with the VA and submit their claim for them after discussing and explaining the whole process. I have even driven many vets up to Northern Virginia for their appointments.
“I enjoy helping other veterans get the benefits that they earned through their service. Just this last month, I did 13 new claims, which includes some student veterans here at Laurel Ridge. I have helped so many veterans, from Vietnam vets, to Afghanistan vets. For me, the process is really not that difficult, but if you don’t know what you’re doing then it can be extremely difficult and very intimidating.”
If any veteran would like to receive help with a disability claim, Tester said they could reach out to him at [email protected].
Laurel Ridge Community College was known as Lord Fairfax Community College until June 2022. For consistency purposes, the college will be referenced as Laurel Ridge going forward.