For the first time, the University of Kansas has awarded two with a new Wounded Warrior Scholarship.
The money, $10,000 per year for up to four years, goes to students who are injured veterans or caretakers of injured vets. KU gave the scholarships to one person from each of the categories and the recipients included the wife of a veteran diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and Anthony Schmiedeler, a veteran who survived tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, but still finds himself battling PTSD.
Starting school can be overwhelming for any student on a busy campus like Johnson County Community College. Every time Schmiedeler traversed the crowded hallways, his PTSD made it seem like the walls were closing in. He said he felt distrust for the sea of faces surrounding him and sensed painful memories creeping back into his mind. The smallest trigger, like a loud noise from a passing bus, transported him back to the time of his life when he was in combat.
"My heart jumps to 100 mph and I'm at that tense state," he said as he thinks about the moments when PTSD takes over.
The tension ruled Schmiedeler's brain and body during two tours as a Marine in Iraq. Over there, it kept him alert and alive.
"Nothing prepares you for the feeling of your life really being in danger until it's happening, and people are shooting at you or bombs are exploding," he said.
But for Schmiedeler the real shock was coming home and dealing with crowds of people.
"I didn't like people being behind me, I still don't like people being behind me, it makes me incredibly nervous," he said.
He struggled to relate to kids who seemed worlds apart.
"The first question anybody asks when they figure out you went to Iraq is, 'did you kill anybody?' And that's something nobody likes to talk about," Schmiedeler said.
The experience drove Schmiedeler inward. His study and sleep were interrupted by thoughts of the many close calls with his Marine brothers.
"We were driving along and all of a sudden, there was an explosion and a cloud of smoke went 200 feet in the air and I couldn't see his vehicle anymore," he remembered as he thought back to one specific moment.
While the friend in that situation survived, others never made it home.
"They were better guys than I am - they should be in school," Schmiedeler said. "I don't understand sometimes why I made it and those guys didn't."
It's a heavy thing to carry around and, while enrolled at JCCC, Schmiedeler thought he might be depressed.
Schmiedeler and his twin brother Ehren had deployed to Iraq together. Ehren Schmiedeler suggested his brother might be dealing with something more serious than depression and pushed him to visit the Kansas City Veterans Medical Center, which is where he was introduced to four letters - PTSD. The Post Traumatic Stress Disorder diagnosis change the way Schmiedeler thought about his condition.
"It's more common than people understand and it's not something that you ask for. It just happens," he said. "You can get help and it's a lot better if you talk to somebody about it and realize that you're not the only one. That's the biggest thing I think."
While getting treatment, Anthony Schmiedeler transferred to KU. He gradually formed friendships and found direction in his graphic design studies. Despite flourishing, he was behind schedule. The 25-year-old college junior was going to run out of the money he received through the GI Bill, a program established by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs that, in part, provides four years of education to anyone who serves.
The Wounded Warrior Scholarship changed all that. Anthony Schmiedeler will now graduate debt-free and may even pursue a master's degree.
"I was pretty happy," he said.
But even the honor feels complicated for him, despite all he's been through.
"I do feel sometimes like it's not big enough of a problem compared to the other guys that lost something, or were really physically hurt," Anthony Schmiedeler said.
His loyalty to his fellow Marines never falters and he still struggles with life on the other side.
"Would you ever consider going back?" KCTV5's Alice Barr asked.
"Yeah, actually I did a lot when I first came back because I felt like I was better there, and that's where all your brothers are," Anthony Schmiedeler responded.
The young man talks about the Marines almost like an addict trying not to relapse.
"I think at this point I've made it far enough and I think I can do it," he said.
And Anthony Schmiedeler is moving forward, planning a career in public interest design, using the power of an image to solve a problem. He created a set of award-winning advocacy posters representing all the red tape veterans have to go through to get their benefits.
"That's something I went through personally," he said.
While he still may agree with the tag line that war is easier than collecting benefits, he is finding ways to connect his past to his future.
"Being a Marine, that's all you're doing is solving problems. I think I look at design the same way, I just have to figure out how to find the answer," Anthony Schmiedeler said.
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