Live fire in a battle zone is one challenge to a soldier; readjusting to civilian life as a university student is another.
A student club at Idaho State University-Idaho Falls is helping veterans cope with a variety of challenges.
Fall 2009 Issue | By Andy Taylor
“When you get shot at, it is pretty intense,” said Dustin Mortimer, president of the Armed Forces Veterans Club at Idaho State University–Idaho Falls, who served two tours as a U.S. Army Specialist E-4 in Iraq and Kuwait from 2001-06. “It is easier than it sounds – you stand there and it happens, but it is still intense. You’re always pretty much on edge in combat zones.”
Mortimer, whose father Dean Mortimer is a state senator from Idaho Falls in District 32, enlisted in the Army right after Sept. 11, 2001. While in the Army he was in a combat engineering platoon used for convoy support, obstacle emplacement and combat patrols.
“You are so engrained into the situation it becomes normal,” Mortimer said. “Your normal stress is bombs and bullets. What was hardest personally for me was being away from family and friends, with little or no contact.”
Upon his exit from the Army in fall 2006, Mortimer enrolled in classes at Idaho State University in Idaho Falls and in Pocatello, majoring in business management.
“One of the hardest things for a veteran, in my opinion, is getting used to being a civilian again,” Mortimer said. “The military and student life are so completely different. When you become a civilian you have to make your own decisions again and have to be your own commander, which can be hard after years of being told where to be and what to do. It took me over two years to be comfortable in (the university) setting.”
It was difficult for Mortimer was to rekindle his self-motivation after the rigid structure of the military.
“We’ve talked about being your ‘own commander,’ but that was hard to do,” he said. “I also realized for the first year or so I relied heavily on my folks for direction. It took awhile to really think about decisions and act on my own.
He said he noticed the maturity difference between returning veterans and traditional-aged students. When other students complained about “small” things such as what wear or what to eat the comments seemed very trivial to Mortimer.
“Those things are really unimportant and you learned that stuff in the military,” Mortimer said. “You wore what you could, ate what was there, and did what you were told.”
Mortimer and Sean Blacker, also an ISU-Idaho Falls student and a veteran, decided to revive the veterans’ club at ISU-Idaho Falls, which had become inactive.
“We’d heard there was a veterans’ club that had gone out of service, but Sean and I talked about reviving it because there was a need,” Mortimer said. “Between the two of us we knew there was a need for veterans to get together, find the information we needed and to support each other for this new experience we called ‘college.’”
Dustin Mortimer gives a speech at the opening of the Veterans' Sanctuary on ISU's campus.
They enlisted the help of Todd Johnson, assistant director of academic advising at ISU-Idaho Falls. Johnson, also a veteran, became the club advisor.
“The veterans’ club has become one of our most active clubs,” Johnson said. “They’ve run a variety of events.”
The club petitioned the university for the first flag pole on the Idaho Falls campus, and dedicated the pole last Veterans Day with a U.S. flag that had flown over the United States Capitol Building.
The key to the club’s success is simple: one veteran talking to another.
“We come from different branches of the military, and some of us served overseas or were in combat and some of us weren’t, but we still speak the same language,” Johnson said. “We really do share information in a different way than non-vets do.”
His observation was backed up by Vincent McHenry, the ISU-Idaho Falls Veterans’ Club vice president for the 2009-10 academic year.
“To me, the club is very important,” said McHenry, 30, who spent four years in the Marine Corps. “It helped me stay in school. I got here and I had just moved to Idaho Falls and was out of my element at school. I started going to the meetings and they showed me the ropes and I made friends.”
The club hopes to expand its membership and its activities, offering even greater support to veterans. They plan to hold meetings every other week, sponsor school events at ISU-Idaho Falls such as offering video games on the big screen, having another flag raising and a campus barbecue; participating in school events such as: the Halloween Carnival and Spring Fair, and planning club events such as fundraising activities, dinners, bowling, disc golf, a paintball outing and a Veterans Day program. A new chapter of the club also started fall semester on the Pocatello campus.
“The key word is support,” Mortimer said. “When you are in the military you are surrounded by friends and other vets 24/7. When you get out and go back to school it is a whole different ball game.
“The club really helps,” continued Mortimer. “Besides supporting fellow vets it is also just an excuse to do something outside of the normal routine that helps you get back in to civilian activities.”
Being a veteran isn’t a requirement of joining the club.
“We want anyone who is interested in supporting veterans and veteran’s issues,” Johnson said. “In fact, one of the best officers in the group is Josh Rupe and he has never served in the military. He is just one of the group and we love his dedication.”