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'Operation Education' provides net for veterans
By Joni Kirk
Special to American Forces Press Service

MOSCOW, Idaho, Oct. 31, 2008 - One decision turned Chase Clark's life upside-down, but another is helping him realize the dreams he didn't think were possible.

While still in high school in rural Blackfoot, Idaho, Clark signed up for the Army National Guard because of the great benefits and the "opportunity to make something" of himself.

Immediately following graduation, he took advantage of the educational benefits and enrolled at Idaho State University. "I never expected to get activated, but I knew it was a possibility," he said.

That's exactly what happened his first semester, however. Clark found himself serving in Iraq, where he was wounded in combat. He won't discuss his injuries, though, because of the emotional trauma he still suffers.

Upon his return home, Clark was discharged from the Army National Guard, but found the battle was only beginning. "Veteran wounds can suck you down and hold you within yourself. I was in a deep, dark place," he said.

Eventually, Clark realized he needed to escape the demons that haunted him. Intent on obtaining a degree in landscape architecture, he took another gamble and headed to the University of Idaho. This time he won the jackpot.

Soon after his arrival, Clark learned about a scholarship created specifically for disabled veterans: the university's "Operation Education" scholarship program.

Operation Education has three components customized to meet the personal needs of each scholar. Each plan provides financial, academic and social support for the diverse challenges that go with a return to civilian life, adjusting to life with a disability and working to earn a college degree. The program also is available to veterans' spouses.

According to John Sawyer, a veterans' advisor at the University of Idaho, a college degree can lead to a new life and career opportunities.

"For many disabled veterans, returning to a productive and satisfying life is about more than just money," Sawyer said. "Rather, it is about the need for comprehensive and integrated support. We will do whatever it takes for these veterans to succeed in the classroom, on campus, in the community and, ultimately, in society by helping them complete a college degree."

"I know a lot of wounded vets who have had a tough time getting their benefits and aren't getting paid, which is stressful on their families," Clark said. "This scholarship is not like that at all. The people with Operation Education get things done. They make things happen. More than that, they take care of anything needed for my education."

For Clark, the package has included physical therapy, assistance with vocational rehabilitation, social support, financial assistance for extra expenses, and more.

Because he doesn't have to worry about the "behind the scenes" efforts, Clark said, he is able to focus on his course work. With help from Operation Education, he was able to take a six-week landscape architecture course in Italy. He also plans to study abroad in New Zealand in the spring.

"Studying internationally allows me to glean from the foundations and traditions of landscape architecture," he said. "There are great examples of city form, land planning and landscape design that can serve as inspiration for contemporary design and planning."

Clark's also developing his skills closer to home. This year, students in the university's landscape architecture program are working in Cascade, Idaho, to develop and realize a community vision.

"It's a project where we impact real people directly," Clark said. "It made me realize what I can become. I'm developing both as an individual and as part of a team. It's very inspiring and presents me with new challenges and ideals."

He credits the university and its scholarship program as being a "grounding rod" for disabled veterans.

"Operation Education is more than a scholarship - it's a support web," Clark said. "It allows me to be flexible in exploring the different avenues and opportunities of my education. I can focus on learning without being hindered by all the details.

"I encourage other vets who may think that they can't go to school to reconsider."

(Joni Kirk works at the University of Idaho.)