GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The University of Florida is responding to reports that members of the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity blatantly and repeatedly disrespected veterans at a retreat in Panama City Beach during spring break.
Linda Cope, founder of the Warrior Beach Retreat, where the vets had come to heal and find some peace and solidarity, said that what happened was deplorable.
"They were a total disgrace to our military. They were urinating on the American flag, they were throwing things off the balcony," Cope said.
According to witnesses, brothers from the UF and Emory University chapters of the fraternity were staying at the Laketown Wharf on Panama City Beach while attending a spring formal.
A group of veterans was also staying at the resort as part of a healing event with the Warrior Beach Retreat.
Cope said that while the brothers were at the resort, they started antagonizing the veterans and throwing marshmallows on their vehicles.
The brothers didn't stop there and even went so far as to start tearing American flags off the vets cars and urinated on them, Cope said.
One veteran said he and his service dog were spit on and beer was poured from a balcony onto the vets.
"They actually spit on me and my service dog as well, and that's just so disrespectful and it hurts. I come and I feel honored and I feel safe and that I belong, but now I feel like I'm defending myself," wounded veteran Nicholas Connole said.
Cope also said the spouses of the vets weren't safe either, with brothers making inappropriate comments to them.
"My prayer is that this will make an impression on the whole university level," Cope said. "For these men and women to realize they better appreciate the men and women that gave them the right to have a formal."
Cope said the community has been very supportive, and she's proud of the veterans and their spouses for not retaliating against the students but wants something to be done.
"I have not stood up and said anything about spring break because we are constantly trying to get the support of the community, but if this is at all indicative of what these college students do, we need to get rid of it," Cope said.
University of Florida President W. Kent Fuchs sent a formal letter to Cope in response to the allegations against the fraternity brothers:
I am writing to let you know that I am deeply concerned about the reports I have received of inappropriate and offensive behavior involving Zeta Beta Tau students staying at the Laketown Wharf Resort in Panama City Beach this past weekend.
"The incidents and behavior you and others have described in emails and phone conversations, the disruption to the Warrior Beach Retreat, and the offense to the wounded warriors and other guests are unacceptable. We are pursuing an investigation of the matter to learn more about the involvement of University of Florida students and whether disciplinary action will be needed.
"As this investigation continues, and without knowing the full extent of what transpired, I want to make clear that I am deeply sorry for the affront that our students may have caused. Having visited the Warrior Beach Retreat website and learned about the service and bravery of your son, Joshua; the love and compassion of his wife, Erica; and your own tireless efforts on behalf of our wounded veterans, I can only imagine the pain and indignity of enduring this behavior. I want to assure you that it is not representative of our students or our university, and we will make every effort to learn more, take appropriate action, and prevent similar incidents from occurring again."
A spokesperson for Emory University also released a statement in response to the allegations that students from the university were involved.
"Emory University was appalled to learn of acts of disrespect and harassment that were directed at attendees of the Warrior Beach Retreat in Florida this past weekend.
"Our brave veterans who have sacrificed much for our country deserve the utmost respect and appreciation for their service.
"The disrespectful behavior exhibited by students toward our veterans is not acceptable and will not be tolerated by members of the Emory community.
"When Emory received complaints that students from one of our fraternities might be involved, Campus Life administrators immediately began an investigation. To date, no evidence has been found to implicate Emory students in these reported incidents. If any members of our community are identified as being responsible, they will be held accountable for their actions by the university.
"Emory University thanks veterans for the significant contributions they have made to our country, and for exhibiting the values that we hold with great respect within our university community. "