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Squad Goals: Finding Support Among the UNLV Warrior Family

For veteran Randy Dexter, man's best friend —and a campus organization — made all the difference.

People  |  Nov 9, 2017  |  By UNLV News Center
man in meeting with dog

Captain goes everywhere with student veteran Randy Dexter. (Ronda Churchill)

Editor's Note: 

This story was written by Stepheni Collins and Jennifer Gray of the Division of Student Affairs.


Strength, tenacity, and perseverance: ready qualities of a warrior. For Randy Dexter, a U.S. Army veteran, husband, and father of three, being a warrior today is about rebuilding and redefining his life after more than a decade of service. Far away from the battlefield today, that courage extends to the world of academia where Dexter is carving out his place.

The attacks of Sept. 11 drove Dexter to enlist. He followed the example of his grandfather, who served in the Korean War, and joined the Army. Dexter served as a combat medic in Iraq for 11 years. The front lines became his temporary home; trauma care for battered men and women his normal routine. When he returned stateside he was awarded two Bronze Star medals. He was expected to assimilate back into life in the Unites States with ease.

But Dexter was a different man. He was plagued with severe post-traumatic stress disorder, suffered from major depressive disorder. He had sustained a serious brain injury – the aftermath of being caught in an IED explosion in Iraq. The next four years of his life were spent in intensive treatment, including several months in an inpatient facility. He battled with haunting thoughts of suicide. Life after military service included more challenges than he ever expected; the future seemed bleak.

When hope arrived, it came in the form of a service dog named Captain. The two were paired together in 2014 in conjunction with the K9s for Warriors Project. With Captain around, Dexter’s life and challenges seemed to be more bearable.

“We have a special connection,” he said. “He can’t function without me — or me without him.”

The sweet and loyal lab mix changed Dexter’s life, and let him begin the steps of healing. One of those steps included returning to school, where Captain accompanies Randy in and out of the classroom.

For many veterans, the transition to a university learning environment is daunting. A common sentiment is that being in the military is a security blanket of sorts – a community of brothers and sisters working toward a regimented goal. To go from having that familiarity and purpose to a new and often individualistic campus environment is scary, can be a struggle for many veterans.

When Dexter and Captain resumed classes at UNLV, they found the support of the Military & Veteran Services Center and the student organization Rebel Vets. These two campus resources offered support that includes, financial aid resources, campus and community support services, discounted-housing programs, and various networks for veteran employment opportunities.

“The groups aim to create a community that eases the transition from military life to civilian life,” Dexter said.

With the support of the center, Rebel Vets and Captain, Dexter, a communication studies major, thrives in his academic career.

“UNLV is so good about promoting the veterans,” Dexter said. “No one embodies the UNLV slogan of ‘Daring, different, and diverse’ more so than the Rebel Vets.”

Dexter is the current president of Rebel Vets under the center’s director, Ross Bryant, whom Dexter calls his “role model,” and off campus Dexter has become an outspoken advocate for service dogs and their benefits to veterans with PTSD. He travels around the country with Captain and K9s for Warriors on a mission to highlight his experience and help others.

Dexter’s return to civilian life could have remained bleak, but his courage off the battlefield led him to the right connections and camaraderie he needed to succeed.

“I want to work hard and show my kids that if your dad can do it and so can you,” Dexter said. “Resiliency is something I really live by.”

That resiliency is a reality today for Dexter, and his network on campus and in Las Vegas. To paraphrase The Beatles, he gets by with a little help from his friends.