Operation Education Celebrates 10 Years of Helping Veterans
At his high school in Pueblo, Colorado, in 2008, Aaron Torres heard a lot of people complain about the war in Iraq. It was the end of the military surge in Iraq, and Torres was graduating from high school early.
The son of Mexican immigrants, he decided he wanted to contribute to his country.
“I’m a first-generation American, so I felt that a lot of people were complaining about the war, and yet they weren’t doing their part,” Torres said. “I didn’t understand why people didn’t have the same loyalty and love for their country that I did.”
Torres’ military service began in February 2008. He joined the U.S. Army Airborne Infantry and served overseas at the joint service station in Oubaidy, Iraq. There, his unit participated in peacekeeping and security patrols.
Torres received a medical discharge in February 2012, and then had to plan his future.
In 2015, Torres learned about Operation Education, a special program at the University of Idaho for veterans injured during military service since 2001. Veterans advisor Dan Button helped Torres learn about the program and come to Moscow.
Now a senior, Torres is preparing to graduate in the next year or so from UI with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and archaeology from the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences. The support offered by Operation Education has played a large part in helping him succeed.
“I’ve been able to meet some very interesting and intelligent people. It also kind of links one to the community,” Torres said. “Dan Button does a lot for the scholars and the other vets. He takes time out of his day to talk to us and get a feel for how we’re doing. He’s a very good advisor.”
Celebrating 10 Years
Operation Education offers academic, financial and social support to veterans who received service-connected injuries, both physical and mental, as well as their spouses. The program celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2016. Since its inception in 2006, it has served 28 students, including six enrolled in classes this year.
Operation Education began with the support of Karen White, wife of then-UI President Tim White.
“My background is as a physical therapist by training, and so I’ve always had sort of a soft spot and an interest in advocating for people with disabilities,” said Karen White, who now teaches kinesiology at California State University, Long Beach.
In the early 2000s, UI was seeing an increase in the number of veterans enrolling for classes. About that same time, Heidi Linehan — an employee in UI’s Office of Development — traveled to Washington, D.C., and had an opportunity to visit the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where her daughter was a volunteer.
“She came back and told these stories about how these men and women were so focused on getting their abilities back to whatever they could — many times they just wanted to get back to their unit and go back and defend our country,” White said. “Just the perseverance and the spark in their eye and the will to get it all back together again. It was so heartbreaking and inspiring.”
Linehan and White began to speculate about how UI could better serve the growing population of modern veterans.
“The answer seemed to be education, that education was the ticket or the solution that was going to help these individuals to be independent, to get back to normal activity and be full contributing members of society,” White said.
And Operation Education was born.
A Holistic Approach
The program is unique among veterans’ assistance programs in that it is individualized and flexible: Button and the Operation Education board work to meet the needs of each veteran or family accepted into the program. When the program started, it offered a lot of financial assistance for tuition, books, fees and living expenses. The program offers financial assistance for tuition, books, fees and living expenses in combination with post-9/11 GI Bill.
“One of our main goals was to make sure the students could finish school without debt. We wanted to make it a significant scholarship so that it made a difference,” White said. “We made a conscious decision not to spread a little bit of money across a lot of students, but identify those who could benefit the most.”
Operation Education continues to accept just a handful of new applicants each year. The program continues to offer financial assistance above their GI Bill to those who need it, but Button said the social, academic and home support has become more of a focus.
“It’s my job to remove barriers and speed solutions to problems that our scholars face to reduce undue stress and anxiety so they can focus on being successful students,” Button said.
That can mean helping Operation Education scholars make medical appointments, track down services, find child care or even assist with emergency car repairs. It was intended to be a holistic approach, White said.
“It’s very hands-on, and somebody is working very closely with the scholars to identify the issues, because students don’t even know enough to ask,” she said.
Spouses of qualified veterans can also apply for the program, something that White said was an important part of the strategy from the beginning. They wanted to ensure that if a veteran had injuries so severe he or she could no longer support the family, then the spouse could get an education.
“It was about keeping that family pod together and helping them be successful, independent contributing members of society,” White said.
Operation Education has had three spouses complete the program. It’s also had students enrolled in the program taking classes at UI’s statewide center and online, although it becomes more difficult to offer the specialized support from a distance, Button said.
And while the program receives inquiries from across the nation, Operation Education isn’t for everyone, Button said. Depending on the injuries and support needs a veteran requires, Moscow can prove too remote and lack adequate services. Program applicants are screened by a scholarship committee to identify those who will be most successful.
A Strong Future
Operation Education is 100 percent privately funded, with giving opportunities that include an endowment, as well as annual contribution scholarship and program support, Button said.
And while the type of support the program offers its students may have changed slightly, Button said the commitment is as strong as ever.
“When people have ‘extra rocks in their backpack,’ you can’t underestimate the value of moral support and encouragement, and just knowing that you have a commitment from an institution like UI behind you. That there are people who are going to be there in every way practical to help you succeed and help you figure out the right path to make that happen,” Button said. “In my experience, for many of our scholars, that’s probably the most important ingredient.”
Torres can attest to that importance.
“Operation Education meets any pressing needs that people have,” Torres said. “I’m very grateful to be a part of it. Just to have that support aspect of it.”
After graduating from UI, Torres hopes to work in the archaeology field for a government agency, and then return to UI to study biological engineering, with a focus on agriculture. His ultimate goal is to improve resource management and help the human race advance.
“We have to figure out a way to get the most out of land as possible,” he said. “Maybe this will help us stop fighting with each other.”
- Article by Savannah Tranchell, University of Idaho.