After searching for a military-friendly college, Iraq veteran finds "all the help he needed" to get started on his degree at Saint Leo.

In 2006, 28-year old Army Sgt. Fidelis Oketch started his 15-month tour of duty in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. With the 82nd Brigade Support Battalion, 3rd Brigade Combat Team from Fort Bragg, he deployed to COB Speicher, the former Al Sahra Airfield under Saddam Hussein, north of Tikrit.

Oketch’s assignment with the Security Platoon Bravo Team placed him in one of the most vulnerable of positions – in the gunner’s turret atop a heavily armored Humvee. Patrolling the rugged terrain of northern Iraq, his team’s mission was to ensure the dangerous, dust-choked roads were as secure and safe as possible for other military vehicles.

In June 2007, 11 months into his tour, while on patrol in Taji, multiple IEDs exploded beneath his Humvee.

Critically injured and remembering little but a thunderous blast and flash of light, he miraculously survived.

Compelled to Serve

A native of Uganda, Oketch immigrated to the United States as a teenager, acclimating to bitter Minneapolis winters after the tropical sun of Kampala. His decision to enlist in the Army came during his junior year at St. Cloud State University in response to a persistent sense of duty to protect a post 9/11 America from any similar attack.

“The United States had given me and my family an opportunity for a life that we could only dream of in Africa,” he said. “I felt the need to represent my family and show our gratitude by serving.”

Oketch received U.S. citizenship at the same time he enlisted. He was awarded the Purple Heart for his sacrifice to his adopted country.

Transitioning to Civilian Life

Like all too many combat veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Oketch struggled with the transition back to civilian life.

“For two years, I battled psychological issues, until I realized that I needed an outlet, a new mission,” he said.

With military tuition assistance available through the new Post 9/11 Veterans Education Bill, Oketch decided to restart his college career as a veteran student.

The True Meaning of "Military-Friendly"

Oketch took the first step by searching the Internet for veteran and military-friendly colleges. Finding Saint Leo University online, he was impressed by the university’s reputation as one of America’s largest and most-committed providers of higher education to the U.S. military.

“That connection really opened my eyes. So I decided to dig deeper,” he said.

Bravo team

A trip from the Fort Bragg area to Florida to see a friend from his former unit provided an opportunity to visit University Campus.

“Saint Leo made the application process so easy. They accepted all of my credits. I had all the help I needed with the paperwork and the certification process for my military education benefits, so I never had to call the VA.”

Finding Community in the Classroom

For even for the toughest and most-tested of soldiers, however, the decision to step back into the classroom was not without trepidation.

“My main concern involved the ‘fit-in factor.’ After having this world experience, you feel as if all eyes are on you. And you wonder, ‘Will I make friends?’ ‘Will I pass my classes?’ ‘Will I have the patience I need to be successful?’

Starting weekend classes during the summer, Oketch encountered a number of other veteran students, including friends he had made during his deployment in Iraq. “I felt an immediate sense of community,” he said.

A New Mission: To Assist Fellow Vets

Last spring, Oketch earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology. Currently, he is enrolled in the university’s new One-Year International & Experiential MBA program offered at the Tampa Education Center. He is conducting an internship for the program through SLU’s Office of Veteran Student Affairs.

Under the guidance of its director, Jose Coll, Oketch is helping to develop an online course to assist veterans with the transition to civilian life. He says the webinar will begin with goals assessment and include information about resources and benefits to support them in reaching those goals.

For himself, Oketch’s ultimate goal is to work in the Veterans Affairs system.

“I want to help other vets because I feel as if I really understand them,” he said. “I know the challenges they are dealing with, including the psychological issues. I know where they’re coming from.”

He wants to serve veterans, as he feels Saint Leo has served him.

Are you a veteran pursuing a college degree? Can you offer any advice for fellow vets transitioning from the military to college? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.

Image credit: Saint Leo University