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Alumnus helps disabled veterans find their way back from war

Veteran plays wheelchair softball

Around 540 veterans competed in 17 medaled events at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, above, last year in Virginia.

“Now what?”

That’s the dilemma facing veterans who return home from war after losing a limb or being rattled by post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s a question without an easy answer, one that looms so large that it can leave a frustrated veteran sitting on a couch—or worse—rather than re-entering his or her life.

Jordan Schupbach ’07 helps disabled veterans find the answer to that question. The public relations major is a veteran himself, serving in the Air Force during the early days of the war in Afghanistan.

Schupbach works for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, leading outreach efforts for three of the VA’s six national events centered on therapeutic rehabilitation. One of them is the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, which will enter its 33rd year in Tampa, Florida, this coming July.

“The obvious fact for a soldier who suddenly finds himself in the disabled veteran category is that things are very different, but that shouldn’t equate to letting go of the dreams and goals you want to achieve in life,” Schupbach said. “Our events and programs are designed to move the vets from injured to active, and get them back in the game.”

Jordan Schupbach talks to a veteran

Jordan Schupbach ’07, left, talks with Vietnam era Navy veteran David Spotts during a break in the action at the 32nd annual National Veterans Wheelchair Games last year in Richmond, Virginia.

Schupbach, who grew up around the Midwest but considers Bloomington-Normal his hometown, enlisted in the Air Force in 1998. He played a combat support role during two Middle East deployments, first to enforce a no-fly zone over southern Iraq in 2000, then during Operation Enduring Freedom in the months after the September 11 terror attacks. Operating out of a base on Masirah Island, Oman, he would handle troop movements, provide convoy support and helped protect senators, generals and other dignitaries when they visited the war zone.

Schupbach left the Air Force in 2002 and worked as an emergency medical technician in Colorado before transferring in 2006 to Illinois State University, where both his parents and a brother are also alumni.

But like the veterans he would later work with, Schupbach’s transition back to civilian life came with some challenges. During one of his first classes at Illinois State, sitting in an unfamiliar environment, he saw a freshman with her friends become emotional about missing her mother back home. Schupbach, who was then 23 with a wife and child, had just spent two years on the other side of the world.

“My perspective was just so much different,” said Schupbach, now 35 and living in Centennial, Colorado, near Denver. “My transition back to civilian life was laden with those kinds of examples.”

Schupbach moved back to Colorado after graduating from Illinois State and first worked for the Paralyzed Veterans of America. He moved over to the VA for a public affairs job in 2009 after the National Veterans Wheelchair Games came to Denver.

“It’s great to work literally hand-in-hand with my fellow veterans,” Schupbach said. “Some were wounded last year in Iraq, some are World War II veterans. Our programs serve them all, and we see veterans from all eras at our events.”

The National Veterans Wheelchair Games started in 1981 in Richmond, Virginia, drawing 74 veterans. Last summer, when the Games returned to Richmond for a homecoming of sorts, 540 veterans competed in 17 medaled events, from archery to hand cycling to basketball. They also test-drive a new event every year in exhibition; last year, it was boccia.

Schupbach works with media outlets, coordinates and supervises public affairs teams for the events, builds marketing materials and organizes outreach events to generate interest among potential athletes. “Each day is different,” he said. “It’s one thing I love about the job.”

Typically, a quarter of the competitors have never before participated in any type of organized wheelchair sports competition.

“Some of them are into it immediately,” Schupbach said. “With others, it may take a little more encouragement to show them what these programs are really about.”

There are about 3.4 million veterans with some type of service-connected disability, or about 15 percent of all veterans, according to Census data. The VA embraces new and non-traditional approaches to the holistic healing of those injured veterans, Schupbach said. If that means pitting two teams of veterans against each other in a violent game of quad rugby, so be it.

“These guys and girls have a competitive spirit. They love the camaraderie of it. They love the physical challenge,” Schupbach said. “When they leave, we want them to not be thinking about the next event in 2013, but the next 51 weeks and how they’re gonna use those weeks to prepare.”

Disabled veteran plays ping pong

Around 540 veterans competed in 17 medaled events at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, above, last year
in Virginia.

There’s no shortage of success stories. Schupbach recalls a veteran who came back from Iraq with leg and back injuries suffered in an improvised explosive device blast. He came to the National Veterans Summer Sports Clinic in San Diego, where newly injured veterans get a taste of the wide world of adaptive sports, including sailing, surfing, track and field, kayaking and cycling.

The injured veteran, who walked with a cane and a limp, made great strides in just a week, Schupbach said. Now, he competes in mixed martial arts fights—and not in a disabled-fighter category.

“He was so motivated by what he could do, he just went all out,” Schupbach said. “That’s really the story of our events. That’s our office motto—Mission Redefined—in action.”

Not every injury is physical. The number of U.S. veterans getting compensation from the VA for service-connected post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) increased 222 percent, to 386,882, from 1999 to 2010. And the VA’s huge national events, which draw thousands of athletes, family members and volunteers, present a unique challenge for those with PTSD, Schupbach said.

“For a person with post-traumatic stress disorder to be able to make that leap is sometimes difficult,” Schupbach said. “That’s the most rewarding part of my job, to see that transition, from someone who is so closed up from the emotional scars of battle, to move into a position to engage, compete, laugh and struggle in such an open environment.”

Schupbach’s own reintegration to civilian life was anchored by Illinois State. He praised the University’s Veterans Services for helping him navigate his benefits, including the GI Bill, which meant he didn’t have to work outside of his studies and could spend time with his young family.

He said having that flexibility was critical. “It’s like my classes were my job.”

Schupbach also credits Illinois State’s public relations program in the School of Communication for focusing on the theory behind his craft—not just the mechanics of writing a press release. He said that’s been vital in his current role helping disabled veterans navigate their redefined life mission.

“Illinois State didn’t give me the Public Relations Manual,” he said. “Instead, instructors like John McHale and Joseph Zompetti taught me how to creatively consider audiences, outlets and stories in order to craft messages that were unique and exciting. It follows the old ‘teach a man to fish’ analogy.”

Here’s some video from the 2011 National Veterans Wheelchair Games:


HELPING VETERANS

Veteran poses for a photo

Cassandra Dodge is a veteran now completing a criminal justice sciences degree at ISU. She appreciates the campus support for those who have served in the military.

About 584 veterans, on average, attend Illinois State University every year.

Veterans Services is often the first point of contact for student-veterans and dependents, but various offices, such as Academic Advising, Career Center and Student Counseling Services, have a designated staff member to assist veterans with their unique needs.

Since rating began in 2009, Illinois State has been included in the Military Friendly Schools list published by G.I. Jobs magazine. This list recognizes the top 15 percent of colleges, universities, and trade schools that are supporting the educational pursuits of veterans.

The Veterans Memorial on the Quad was dedicated on November 11, 2011. The Veterans Study Center, a designated area to meet, study, or relax between classes, opened last September.

For more information on Veterans Services visit Veterans.IllinoisState.edu.

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