Iraq war veteran Melissa Steinman credits injured animals with helping to show her the way out of the dark depths of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The 1997 Ashland High School graduate recently spent six months at the Adobe Mountain Wildlife Center near Phoenix, Ariz., where she worked with animals too injured to survive on their own while developing a curriculum for under-served students who needed a helping hand.
"Those injured animals taught me and my students more than I could ever imagine," she said. "When you took an owl or another bird out of their cages, they would always try to fly away.
"You could see changes in their behavior the moment they were brought out," she added. "They maintained their strength, mentally and physically. When I was having a rough day, they showed me I could do it. The kids also learned from them they could make it."
Steinman, 32, was a participant in the nonprofit The Mission Continues fellowship program, which gives post-9/11 veterans the opportunity to rebuild their sense of purpose through community service by working with a local charitable organization.
Founded by former U.S. Navy SEAL Eric Greitens in 2007 when he returned from his final deployment to Iraq, the program aims to help veterans learn to translate their military experiences into civilian skills while earning a modest living stipend.
For Steinman, that meant combining her military skills with her passion for teaching.
"It's a great opportunity for veterans to go out to their communities to serve others while changing their lives," said Steinman, who will be at Southern Oregon University on Wednesday to talk to post-911 veterans interested in the program.
She will be at SOU's Commuter Resources Center in Stevenson Union from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. that day. You need not be an SOU student to drop by to talk to her about the program.
The program is offering 500 community service fellowships to post 9/11 veterans across the nation this year. A fellowship typically lasts six months.
The program's mission is to allow a veteran to rebuild his or her sense of purpose through local community service, Steinman said. The veteran selects the charitable organization, she noted.
Steinman joined the U.S. Coast Guard and served in a port security unit protecting oil platforms in Iraq and U.S. assets in Kuwait during 2004. Like many veterans sent into harm's way, the former boatswain's mate second class developed a hyperawareness that made it difficult for her to readjust to civilian life when she returned stateside.
She was diagnosed with PTSD by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and received counseling.
The veteran went back to college, earning a master's degree in education at SOU in 2010. She took a job in Glendale, Ariz., teaching science at a middle school.
But the job didn't reflect the promises made by recruiters in Portland, she said.
"The reality was quite different," she said, noting the job included intervening at soccer games when gangs attempted to recruit students.
"I didn't feel like I could adequately protect my kids from imminent danger," she said. "I ended up getting real sick."
The doctor she went to see at the VA told her she had to quit her job because of the stress. She resigned her position and felt like a failure.
"I am not a quitter," she said.
But she learned about the Mission Continues Fellowship Program from Bill McMillan, an Ashland counselor who works with veterans.
"When I was released from my teaching contract, I knew wanted to be involved in a community service project," she said. "I was drawn to the place (wildlife center) because they provide free education to people."
During her six months at the center, which rehabilitates injured wildlife, she developed and implemented curriculum for all grades, helping to provide free educational programs for more than 5,000 students.
"The kids were able to connect with the animals," she said. "They felt empowered. And I was inspired."
Now living in Waldport where she is tutoring high school students, Steinman has applied for admission into a doctoral program in education at Oregon State University.
For more information about the program, check out www.missioncontinues.org.
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.