November 09, 2007

Landmark program assists injured Iraq veterans

by Eric Welch

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Josh Geltz is painfully familiar with the horrors of war. He returned last year from Iraq with severe hearing loss in his left ear, a degenerative spinal and joint disease, surgically reconstructed ankles and post-traumatic stress disorder.

After eight years in the army and 18 months in Iraq, Geltz, a senior at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, knows first hand the needs of returning veterans. That's why he is helping head up a new program designed to assist veterans with service-related injuries who want to pursue their degrees.

SIUC's Disability Support Services recently implemented its Transition Program for Veterans with Service-Related Injuries with the assistance of a three-year grant for $204,000 from the Illinois Board of Higher Education. The landmark project is the first of its kind in Illinois, assisting injured veterans in making the adjustment to postsecondary education through individualized training.

"I look at the news and I see a pipeline of people that we're going to need to serve," said Kathleen Plesko, director of Disability Support Services at SIUC. "We're already putting together a network of services through campus. Everybody's going to pitch in and it'll be a campus-wide initiative."

Plesko said that the project is simply about giving back to those who have sacrificed for their country. Regardless of their intent to enroll at SIUC or whether they are prospective, re-entering or transfer students, Plesko said that all returning veterans are welcome.

"I've attended other universities, this is my third, and this is the most proactive university that goes after military veterans and is respectful of veterans more so than others," Geltz said. "SIUC has a real practical approach. It's a good community that really supports the veterans and that has a lot to do with it."

Out of that environment has come the focus and concern for the individual. The program is designed to be flexible and to change based on an individual's needs. For instance, a returning soldier who lost his or her vision would learn how to use adapted technology such as voice-activated computer programs, campus GPS and audio versions of textbooks – a skill set far different from that which a deaf or paralyzed student needs to succeed in the classroom. The amount of training can also vary, lasting from only a day to more than a week.

"We're willing to work with them as much as they want. We'll do whatever it takes," Plesko said.

Additionally, SIUC staff will assist veterans with wellness services, career counseling, financial aid and veteran-specific issues, such as earning college credit for military training. The transition program will also cover lodging and travel expenses while providing recreational opportunities such as horseback riding, wheelchair basketball and free passes to the Student Recreation Center.

"We want to give them a kingly welcome and let them know that we appreciate them," Plesko said.

The unique and vital aspect of the program, however, is the participation of peer mentors – fellow veterans. They will assist in nearly every facet of the program and will give new veterans someone to talk to who understands.

"Vets have a tendency to talk to vets," Geltz said. "They want to reach out and talk to somebody and bond with somebody that has gone through similar situations that they've gone through. They're much more willing to open up and express things that they need and problems to a vet versus someone who hasn't gone through it."

Plesko said that finding veterans who are willing to spend some time getting to know the returning service members is crucial.

"We're looking for volunteers who've been active duty military, preferably with past combat experience, because the young people who are returning deserve to meet other people who have made it," she said.

Plesko added that the program isn't just for those with severe or life-altering injuries, but it also aims to benefit those with mental health problems and post-traumatic stress disorder.

"I think we see people so often like Josh who look like they're in great shape," she said. "He looks healthy and strong, so unless he gives you a little clue into that, you just don't know what he's been through. To say you need help takes tremendous fortitude."

"It's successful," Geltz said. "Last semester my grades faltered because I was too stubborn to reach out for assistance. This year my grades are back on top because I can hear, and I can make it through the courses instead of struggling and trying to be too headstrong and do it myself. That's what the big focus is: to make returning service members aware that they don't have to do it alone, they don't have to be stubborn and they don't have to take on the role by themselves."

Registration is currently open to all veterans with service-related injuries who are prospective college students, regardless of the college or university they plan to attend. To register, volunteer or learn more about the program, contact SIUC Disability Support Services at 618/453-5738 or at