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Chase Clark Profile
November 4, 2008
Chase Clark could be classified as a risk taker. One decision turned his life upside down; another is helping him realize the dreams he didn't think were possible.
While still in high school in rural Blackfoot, 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 recalled.
What seemed a remote possibility came to pass. That first semester, he was activated and soon was on his way to Iraq, where Clark paid a high price. Because of the emotional trauma he still suffers, he declines to give details about the injuries he sustained during his service; however, he was severely and permanently injured.
He returned home and eventually was discharged. But for Clark, the battle only was beginning. "Veteran wounds can suck you down and hold you within yourself. I was in a deep, dark place," he said.
"Combat veterans experience trauma on many levels," said Sean Burlile, a veteran who completed his doctoral degree thesis, "The Experience of Transitioning from the Armed Forces to the Civilian Workforce as a Result of Service-Connected Disabilities," at Idaho last year and now works for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"The initial deployment into a war zone causes stress and anxiety. The actual experience of combat exacerbates the stress and anxiety through imminent threat. And the transition back to the civilian community can create even more stress and anxiety," said Burlile. "If service members are injured while deployed, they not only have to deal with the stress and anxiety related to combat, but they will continue to deal with injuries for the rest of their lives."
Eventually, Clark realized that 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, he learned about a scholarship created specifically for veterans with disabilities – the university's Operation Education Scholarship Program.
Operation Education is a comprehensive package with three vital components that are customized to meet the personal needs of each scholar. Each individualized plan provides financial, academic and social support for the diverse challenges that accompany returning 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, veterans adviser 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," said Clark. "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."
The services and financial support provided by Operation Education are tailored to each student. 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 degree work. With help from Operation Education, he was able to take a six-week landscape architecture studio in Italy. He also plans to study abroad in New Zealand next spring.
"Studying internationally allowed me to glean from the foundations and traditions of landscape architecture," said Clark. "There are great examples of city form, land planning and landscape design that can serve as inspiration for contemporary design and planning."
He's also developing his skills closer to home. Students in the university's landscape architecture program are worked in Cascade to develop and realize a community vision. "It was a project where we impact real people directly," said Clark. "It made me realize what I can become. I've developed both as an individual and as part of a team. It was very inspiring and presented me with new challenges and ideals."
He credits the university and its scholarship program as being a "grounding rod" for veterans with disabilities.
"Operation Education is more than a scholarship – it's a support web," Clark said. "It allowed me to be flexible in exploring the different avenues and opportunities of my education. I could 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, because it's not true. If they come to the University of Idaho, and put in the time and effort, the university will support them in all their endeavors" he said. "After Iraq, I took a chance on the University of Idaho, and it's made me a better person."