Person of the Week
Ryan Cleckner: Fighting for Our Veterans
North Haven resident Ryan Cleckner served as a sniper in the U.S. Army's First Ranger Battalion before heading to law school at Quinnipiac University. After experiencing his own post-military service difficulties when the Veterans Administration claimed it had no record of his service, he founded the Veteran's Advocacy Group, a student organization that aims to fight for the better treatment of all U.S. veterans. (Photo by Jason J. Marchi/The North Haven Courier)
There's a motivational saying that goes something like this: "The best way to predict the future is to invent it."
Although Ryan Cleckner admits he wishes he'd invented that saying, he's already living its philosophy when it comes to fighting for the rights of soldiers returning from war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan.
Just two weeks into the start of Ryan's first year at Quinnipiac University's School of Law this past fall, he approached the school's dean to ask if he could start the student-run Veteran's Advocacy Group.
His motivation to found the group was derived-quite logically-from personal experience.
"Five years into my claim with the V.A. [Veteran's Administration], I got a letter saying they were denying me because they had no proof of my military service because they could not find my medical records," Ryan explains.
"That was the last straw," he continues, noting his utter frustration with the uphill battle the V.A. was giving him. "This [situation] could never exist in the private world. An insurance company could never say they've lost your paperwork and then deny that claim," Ryan claims.
When Ryan also learned-through Associated Press articles-that many veterans were being short-changed in any number of areas in which they needed support (from educational to medical), he decided to make his bid to become part of the solution.
"I said I'm going to law school to see what I can do about it," he states, adding "I'm not that bad off, but there are guys out there who are. There was an A.P. story about nine veterans who were given HIV by three different V.A. hospitals...because they weren't cleaning the colonoscopy equipment. And there was another A.P. article about the V.A. shredding the only copies of soldiers' medical files because they were getting so behind in their work."
Once Ryan's application for the Veteran's Advocacy Group received university approval, fellow veteran Brian Gregorio assumed the post of the group's vice president and three weeks later the group was 12 members strong.
Joining the armed forces "was the last thing I and everybody else expected I would go into," Ryan recalls of his route into the military. "I had no direction then and I thought [the Army] sounded fun," he says.
Although Ryan claims he had "no direction" fresh out of high school, he did have enough vision to convince his Army recruiter that he wanted the immediate opportunity to train as an airborne ranger. Once he passed the extremely rigorous testing, he became a sniper with the First Ranger Battalion.
Of his Army career as a sniper, the Phoenix, Arizona, native says, "I've had to hide my status a little because it scares people, but I don't know why it should. People hear the word 'sniper' and they think 'evil.' But then I ask them, 'Do you think police SWAT snipers are evil? Do you think that snipers at the White House who protect the president are evil?' Of course they don't and I say, 'I was doing the same thing, but for our country, so I'm not evil.'"
Now that Ryan, his wife April, and their two dogs are settled in North Haven while he works on his law degree, he admits he's so in love with the Northeast he'll never return to the arid west.
And when it comes to his appreciation for those who volunteer in the U.S. Armed Forces, Ryan concludes, "I want people to be thankful and I want to thank every veteran for serving. I want them to be proud of what they do, no matter what their job [or rank] in the military."
To nominate a Person of the Week, contact Jason Marchi at firstname.lastname@example.org or 203-245-1877 x6166.