By Karen Hunt
Melissa Stroh is used to high stress. After all, as an Idaho State Police dispatcher, stress comes with the territory. But she never expected her home life would be turned upside down.
Melissa became a dispatcher in 1998. Originally from Twin Falls, she attended North Idaho College where she received an interdisciplinary degree in business and communications.
“I had spent some time in Coeur d’Alene and loved it,” says Melissa. “School was cheaper in Coeur d’Alene. I took a leap of faith and moved.”
While working a temporary assignment in Boise in 2003, she met Eric, an Idaho State Police trooper. Soon after, he moved to Coeur d’Alene.
An active member of the army since 1997 and a reservist since 2006, Eric deployed to Wisconsin in May 2006 and arrived in Iraq in late September.
“He was there a little over a month before he got hurt,” says Melissa. “They were doing route clearing and the vehicle he was in hit an improvised explosive device.”
The vehicle stayed intact, but Eric sustained injuries to his right leg.
“Basically from his knee down, the bone in his leg was shattered,” says Melissa.
Eric was flown to Germany where he was stabilized; then he was flown to the Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., where he was diagnosed with additional service-related injuries.
When Melissa flew back to D.C. to visit Eric, she met other veterans who were injured.
“Some of the people you see over in Walter Reed are hurt worse than your own family,” says Melissa. “You bond with these other people.”
Eric was able to get into community-based health care, which allowed him to receive treatment and have surgeries in Idaho, rather than in D.C. Melissa was with him every step of the way as he underwent several surgeries to reconstruct his leg.
“You’re feeling your own distress because someone you love is hurt,” says Melissa. “But on top of that, there’s just nothing you can do. It’s difficult to step back and let the person deal with the anger and sadness themselves.”
On Jan. 4, 2008, Eric and Melissa were married and as Eric began to put the pieces of his life back together, he decided he would try to go back to work. While he is able to walk, he cannot walk for extended periods of time, so the Idaho State Police adapted his job to accommodate his new circumstances. He tried this for a while, but had to give it up because the injuries to his leg did not allow him to be on his feet.
For Melissa, it was decision time: she knew she needed to go back to school to provide for her family. Her father was an attorney and that prompted her decision to follow in his footsteps.
“My dad was an attorney and he was really giving,” says Melissa. “The law always interested me.”
But the reality of moving to Moscow to attend the University of Idaho College of Law was out of the question, since Eric’s community-based care required him to stay in Coeur d’Alene.
Melissa had been in contact with the University of Idaho’s veteran’s affairs adviser. He suggested that Melissa apply for Operation Education, a scholarship program that offers customized and comprehensive academic, social and financial support to veterans with disabilities and/or their spouses.
Melissa started the EMBA program in September 2009 as an Operation Education scholar. Operation Education received special funding from the Pat Tillman Foundation. The money from Melissa’s scholarship paid for tuition, travel expenses to Moscow several times a year and transportation costs to school in Coeur d’Alene, and has assisted with housing costs.
“It’s pretty special that Operation Education and the Pat Tillman Foundation have included spouses,” says Melissa. “It’s great that they are not just helping the veterans, but they also are helping the spouses. Assisting me also will assist him.”
Since the University of Idaho and the Pat Tillman Foundation encourage their scholars to be engaged with their communities, Melissa has volunteered her time for events that provide for children in need, such as Toys for Tots, Shop with a Cop and Kootenai County Young Professionals. She hopes to get into a career that will allow her to give back.
“I’m interested in non-profits,” says Melissa. “If I can’t find a job in non-profits, I’m hoping that my time will allow me to volunteer with the Coeur d’Alene Chamber of Commerce or the Boys and Girls Club.”
In April 2010, she had the chance to go to Tempe, Ariz., to participate in Pat’s Run’s, the annual fundraising event for the Pat Tillman Foundation. She also took part in the Pat Tillman Legacy Summit, along with previous Operation Education scholars Aaron and Bonnie Contreras. The Pat Tillman Legacy Summit, hosted at the University of Maryland, provided Tillman Military Scholars with presentations and classes on life after the military. Following a presentation given by Sen. John McCain, Melissa was able to meet him.
“My overall experience with the Pat Tillman Foundation has been wonderful,” says Melissa. “I really value the community of people they bring together.”
Operation Education has made school a reality for Melissa and other Operation Education recipients. While all veterans receive the GI Bill, veterans with disabilities often have additional costs for learning that are not covered by the GI Bill.
“Operation Education steps up and takes care of those additional needs,” says Melissa. “You can go back to school and focus on school, not your financial needs. It makes school an option for most disabled veterans.”
Melissa graduated from the University of Idaho-Coeur d’Alene on May 9.