December 16, 2010

Iraq veteran doesn't let injuries derail his dreams

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Someday soon, children will benefit from the lessons injured Iraqi war veteran Joseph E. Fraedrich has learned in the classroom and on the battlefield.

Fraedrich will earn his bachelor’s degree in elementary education during the 9:30 a.m. commencement exercises Saturday, Dec. 18, at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. It marks a big step toward a future the Cobden man hadn’t initially anticipated but a future he’s quite excited about.

Fraedrich, who will be 26 on Jan. 1, was home-schooled until his senior year when he attended Cobden High School, graduating in 2003. Education has always been important in the Fraedrich home. That’s not surprising since Joe’s father, John Fraedrich, is the University’s James J. Jannetides Professor of Business Ethics in the marketing department of the College of Business, and mother Debbie works at the Student Recreation Center.

For as long as he could remember, Fraedrich, who loves working with his hands, wanted to be in the military. He joined the Army right out of high school and became a Bradley system maintainer, essentially keeping the vehicles in operation and serving as a recovery specialist. By late 2003 he was in Germany and shortly thereafter, found himself in Iraq. To say things got a little tense there is most definitely an understatement, according to Fraedrich.

“We would get attacked basically every day,” he recalls.

His unit, known as the “steel tigers,” came under fire each afternoon, which required all to stay inside from noon to three p.m., the time they began calling “TNT,” short for “tiger nap time.”

“You get used to it after a while,” he says with a shrug.

Then came the day in late summer 2004 when Specialist Fraedrich and his team went on a routine recovery mission to bring back a burned vehicle. He was hooking chains on top of the huge vehicle -- think giant Army tank -- about 15 feet in the air when the concussion from an incoming round threw him off and to the ground. After the blast, he got a quick once-over and went back to work. He knew he’d been hurt but just kept doing what he’d been trained to do, first in Iraq and then when he returned to Germany.

It wasn’t until he continued to have health issues that an MRI and other tests revealed the extent of his injuries. Fraedrich had suffered a back injury and a head injury. He still carries a piece of shrapnel under his eye. The extent of the injuries and lack of early treatment led to a medical discharge in late 2006.

In typical Fraedrich style though, one dream replaced another. He came home and soon enrolled in college, initially completing his associate degree at John A. Logan College and then transferring to SIUC for his bachelor’s degree. The war wounds continued to bother him, but they have not deterred him at all from his new mission -- to become a teacher and go back overseas to teach children on military bases.

“I think of Joseph as one of our heroes and I admire him for all he has overcome,” said Louise Stearns, children’s literature instructor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at SIUC.

When she first met Fraedrich, Stearns said he told her about his injuries and explained that it was very painful for him to sit for long periods and that he sometimes has memory and concentration difficulties. But what she and the other faculty found in Fraedrich was a very determined and focused young man who worked very hard.

“Joe has a great work ethic and is very conscientious. He is always willing to put in the extra time required to complete class projects. It was difficult for him to sit still, but he never missed and he always participated in class. He was a student in my children’s literature class and he contributed to class discussions and even arranged for his sister, who is the librarian at the Anna Public Library, to come and speak with our education students about children’s books,” Stearns said. Stearns has remained in contact with him throughout his career at SIUC.

“He is just a wonderful young man. He’s shown such a willingness to work so hard to overcome his injuries and trauma. He’s really grown. He is so confident and so professional now. And he’s very modest about it all. He just says, ‘Everybody has problems. I’m not special.’ But I think he is special,” Stearns said.

Fraedrich said it’s not necessarily been easy, but he has found SIUC and its faculty to be very good to military personnel. The University continues to earn statewide and national recognition for the services it provides to veterans and active-duty servicemen and women.

“They have a really good military degree program. The faculty has been very understanding. Sometimes I had to get up during class because my back hurt and sometimes I had concentration issues but all of the teachers have been very good about it. I had some issues because of the war and my injuries and I had to learn to focus again and remember things. It’s been a challenge but the education faculty has been really great. They are all really good people. They know what they’re teaching and they know how to get it across to students,” Fraedrich said.

Fraedrich said he will have his K-9 endorsement and credentials to teach English, science and social studies. After graduating cum laude, Fraedrich will be back at SIUC, working on his master’s degree in curriculum and instruction. He’ll also be working as a graduate assistant with Frackson Mumba, associate professor in the College of Education and Human Services.

Fraedrich admits that his experiences cause him to sometimes put up walls, not getting very close to people. But, his teachers have helped him move beyond his past and in the children he’ll be teaching, he sees a future that excites him.

“I really enjoy working with kids. I’ve always worked well with children and thought about teaching,” Fraedrich said. In fact, before his military stint, he worked with kids in library settings in Cobden and Alto Pass. But, his love for the military led him to plan a full career there. Now, he plans to combine the two passions.

“The innocence and inexperience of kids lets me really enjoy working with them. After I get my master’s degree, I want to go back overseas and teach kids on military bases. That way I can stay connected with the military and work with kids,” Fraedrich said.

“He has such a good heart and he works so hard. He is going to be a great teacher,” Stearns said.