Newsletter Spring 2015
Dear Alumni and Friends of Operation Education,
In May, commencement marked a milestone for two University of Idaho Operation Education scholars. Operation Education is proud to celebrate the achievements of these dedicated graduates.
As a veteran, I know that helping wounded veterans succeed in college requires more than financial support. Now in its ninth year, the Operation Education program provides veterans injured after 9/11 with support and resources in three critical areas: financial, academic, and social assistance. From classroom accommodations and tutoring to mentorship and career guidance, Operation Education helps these deserving students overcome barriers to success and reach their academic goals.
University of Idaho has been ranked as a top university for veterans, and the Operation Education program continues to serve as a model for similar programs at other universities. Our strong community of veterans, administrators, advisory board members, and generous donors help serve those who have served and sacrificed so much for our country. In many cases, this enables our veterans to pursue fulfilling careers and continue serving others after their military careers end.
I hope you enjoy learning more about two of our impressive Operation Education scholars. We celebrate their accomplishments and look forward to their future successes.
Chair, Operation Education Advisory Board
Opportunity Found: Aaron J. Cencich (BS Wildlife Resources, 2015)
Like many of his peers, Aaron Cencich opted to join the Armed Forces in the post 9/11 era, a time when enlistments surged. Unlike many of his fellow enlistees, however, Cencich wasn’t motivated by the national swell of patriotism. Though he was eager to serve his country, he was also looking for personal and professional direction.
His mother passed away shortly after his 2002 graduation from high school in Olympia, Washington, leaving him grief-stricken without a clear path forward. “Here I was at 19 with no job prospects and no parental support,” he recalls. “I saw the military as something that could open doors for me.”
After signing on in 2003, he shipped off to basic training in the fall with a mixture of excitement and anticipation. Two years of training in Germany provided the order, structure, and purpose he’d needed. When his deployment to Iraq began in January 2006, he was ready. But an improvised explosive device (IED) blast during a routine foot patrol in April 2006 changed his plans. The IED was packed with semi truck wheel bearings, 25-gram metal cylinders that create dangerous shrapnel upon explosion. One of the bearings pierced his left thigh, fracturing his hip and injuring vital internal organs. Afterward, he spent a day in a medically induced coma and more than a month at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. More than a dozen surgeries over the next year helped get him back on his feet, but lingering pain and gastro-intestinal problems led to a separation from military service in 2007.
The swift end to his military career left him “a little lost,” Cencich says. “I kind of floated through community college, but there was no end goal.” After a few years without direction, his Aunt Sylvia brought him to University of Idaho, were he applied for the Operation Education scholarship.
His role as an Operation Education scholar helped clarify his academic goals and provide the sense of purpose he’d lost after his injury. “I had that accountability and structure, like in the military. I had people who I could look in the eye who believed in me and were counting on me and wanted me to succeed.”
Cencich is amazed at how far he’s come. “In high school, I graduated, but I wasn’t an active participant in my education,” Cencich says. “Here, I succeeded despite past academic shortcomings.”
This summer, he’ll work for AVISTA studying endangered fish in Northern Montana; afterward, he hopes to pursue other career options in natural resources. It’s a career path he never could have envisioned a decade ago, one made possible by a combination of hard work and opportunity. “Operation Education has a great system to help veterans succeed academically, but it also falls to the veteran to recognize the opportunity that’s been given,” he says. “You have to want it.”
Success on the Home Front: Matt Brown (BS Secondary Education 2012)
University of Idaho graduate Matt Brown is no stranger to a strenuous daily schedule. He spends his days teaching 7th and 8th graders at two north Idaho junior high schools and comes home to two young children, son Jaden, 9, and daughter Eva, 8. Traveling between schools and balancing family time is challenging, but Brown’s military background prepared him for the rigorous routine: during his two combat deployments to Iraq from 2004 to 2006, he served as an infantryman and later a sniper, all the while adjusting to constant changes in course.
During his deployments, dangerous work in hostile terrain was mentally and physically challenging. But Brown’s biggest hurdles related to his personal life, both during deployment, and afterward. His first challenge: leaving his new wife Jennifer for deployment after just one year of marriage. “We had our one-year anniversary and then I got on a plane,” Brown says. “It wasn’t what she had in mind!”
Jennifer would see him sooner than expected. Two months into his deployment, he ruptured two disks in his lower back during a training exercise. Searing back pain from the injury made him non-deployable as his unit prepared for combat. “I felt cheated,” Brown recalls. “We’d spent all this time preparing as a unit, and I was ready to go after 9/11. It wasn’t satisfying.”
After nearly a year of physical therapy in Idaho, he was cleared for another deployment, this time as a sniper in Iraq’s Al Anbar Province. There, he was surrounded by extreme danger and heightened stress every day; at one point, a colleague took fire from another sniper and died in Brown’s arms.
The intensity of these experiences didn’t hit Brown until 2008, back home in Hayden, Idaho. His back pain was under control, but symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder prompted him to seek treatment from the local VA hospital. Therapy helped Brown process the enormity of what he’d experienced in Iraq and learn positive coping strategies to keep his family life on track.
Brown credits the Operation Education scholarship with helping him succeed both at school and at home. “The scholarship allowed me to focus on school without needing to get an extra job,” he says. “I could focus on my family on the weekends.”Matt Brown at left with soft cap
Overcoming big challenges makes him a better educator, role model, and parent, Brown says. “I’ve always been a leader. I feel I have a lot to pass on to youth.”
Commencement 2015 Photos
OpEd Scholars receiving Veteran Honor Cords and UI President’s Veterans’ Recognition Coins from Veterans Advisor Dan Button