From military service to civilian life Veterans & the GI Bill

Beachcomber contributing staff

Only a few short months after joining the military, Stefan Leroy’s injury happened instantaneously.  The year was 2012.  It would be the last time he had the full use of his birth legs. And, it would be the last time he served active military duty. At age 21, the former Scout and California native became a double amputee.

As the Army veteran rushed to help a soldier wounded by an IED (improvised explosive device), he, too, also stepped on an IED and the blast caused multiple injuries.  Stefan Leroy lost both legs in Afghanistan. The other wounded soldier later died.

Like millions of other young Americans before him, Leroy joined the military to serve his country. He’s not alone in that regard. As of February 2017, about 1.3 million active duty personnel in the US Military according to the Department of Defense personnel workforce report and almost 55,000 are in Florida. Military service, as dated and traditional as it sounds, is still one of the top choices for graduating high school and college students.

Fresh Start

Leroy, now at Palm Beach State College, moved from Washington, DC, to Florida for a fresh new start in civilian life after years of medical care and surgeries at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. And the GI Bill provides that fresh start.

The GI Bill, also known as the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, provides educational benefits or retraining to America’s servicemen and servicewomen.  Palm Beach State College’s Veteran’s Services Office has “several programs and each is administrated differently – depending on a person’s eligibility and duty status,” according to the College’s website. Thus far, they helped 650 students during the past year—from Boca Raton to Palm Beach Gardens and in between.

The Veteran’s Office (as well as, Disability Services) at the North Campus has helped Leroy readjust to life and healing. The campus office is a liaison between the VA and the college.

“Veterans have a hard time with job placements and finding meaningful work, said Matthew Watkins, Veterans Affairs Coordinator, because they are given little direction when leaving the service. “In the education field, veterans receive little to no credits from the military, so they are starting over in a sense.”

In 2015, Stefan Leroy started over after he was medically retired from the Army. So, these days—either in a wheelchair or moving along with prosthetic legs, Leroy can always be found with his trusted companion/service dog, Knoxville, nearby.

Through the non-profit Canine Companions for Independence, he received the service dog, and they were provided additional services or training to get better acclimated to their new lives together. “He is a great help to me,” Leroy said. “When my disability makes my life harder, Knoxville makes it easier.”

With his family in Santa Rosa, California, Leroy makes Jupiter, Florida, home with his girlfriend Katie Smith and Knoxville.  And those servicemen he served with are still close in mind.

“Serving in Afghanistan was the best time I had in the military. Our only bad days were when someone died or got injured,” Leroy shared. “The rest was great. I am still friends with all the guys I served with.”

Army Strong

Rehabilitation and physical therapy can take weeks, months, or even years. In some cases, treatment is never truly over. The West Palm Beach Veteran Affairs Military Center on North Military Trail offers classes in yoga, tobacco cessation, and healthy eating, to name a few, in addition to nature walks.

It’s one reason why veterans have to discover their own path to reclaim their life outside of military service.  And, for Leroy he took to adaptive sports, like cycling and running.  This task made all the more achievable through prosthetic running blades. That’s why this April 17, Stefan and Katie ran the Boston Marathon. It’s his fourth Boston marathon (two in hand cycling).

Cedric King, another veteran amputee, would become Leroy’s role model and inspiration— as King also competes in marathons around the country. It’s understandable that one of his favorite quotes is attributed to MSG Cedric King:  ““You can always go farther, faster than you think you can.”

The contributions and sacrifices are many to the men and women who serve or served in the US Military. Let us never forget. This year, the Wounded Warrior Project counts approximately 100,800 alumni. The program serves “veterans and service members who incurred a physical or mental injury, illness, or wound, co-incident to their military service on or after September 11, 2001 and their families,” according to its website. Additionally, iCasualties.org counts approximately 2,400 US fatalities during Operation Enduring Freedom.

Palm Beach State recognizes Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day each year. The new Lake Worth campus Veterans Resource Center will also add VA Justice Counseling, VA PTSD counseling, College Tutoring, Job Fairs and club events. Show your support and thanks for our military through words and deeds. For additional information, visit: PalmBeachState.edu/VeteransServices.