University of Idaho student Tom Prewitt didn't know fear until his Army unit boarded a plane in Germany in January 2002. Cpl. Prewitt's unit was the first Army unit to enter the Afghanistan war zone in January 2002.
"We had to load our M16s prior to takeoff, and when we landed, we were told by the Air Force to hurry up and get off their plane," said Prewitt. "That's when the danger of the situation sunk in."
A heavy construction equipment operator for the Army's 101st Airborne Division, Prewitt and his unit were responsible for reconstructing and maintaining the runway in Kandahar in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Their task was crucial to Operation Anaconda, the first large-scale battle in Afghanistan to involve a large number of U.S. conventional forces - or non-Special Forces - that participated in direct combat activities. The 101st is an air assault division that can deploy anywhere within 36 hours. Prewitt and his unit ensured some 1,700 air-lifted troops had an operable air field from which to take off and land.
Five years after Operation Anaconda, Prewitt is completing a degree at the University of Idaho in wildlife resources, an education funded in part by Operation Education - a University of Idaho scholarship program to assist wounded members of the U.S. military. He sustained permanent disability in his knees, three torn ligaments in his left ankle and a weak right ankle. His injuries hamper day-to-day activities. Still, the military wanted more out of Prewitt.
"I'd served my time and was moving to Idaho for college in 2004. The day we moved, I received a recall notice," said Prewitt. "I was required to report for duty because my injury apparently didn't meet the qualifications to be exempted from the recall."
Upon reporting for duty, he finally was able to meet with a surgeon who exempted him from active duty; he completed his commitment to the Army in April 2006. He was able to return to the University of Idaho, an institution he'd planned to attend since his youth.
"I'd heard about Idaho's wildlife program while in high school," he said. "If I attended the local community college for wildlife management, which is what I planned to do, there were only three transfer schools in the nation I could attend to complete my bachelor's degree."
Although already enrolled at the University of Idaho, he heard about Operation Education last fall from his Veterans of Foreign War post - the Hawley-Jameson VFW Post No. 2905 in Moscow - where he serves as chaplain.
"I knew it was a scholarship for me; I deal with pain every day of my life," said Prewitt. "I heard that the scholarship was established for disabled vets from Iraq and Afghanistan to pursue their education and not feel that their disability hinders them."
He applied for the scholarship in December 2006 and received funds to help cover his educational costs for spring 2007 semester, his final semester at the university. "Money was tight for a while, so it was a relief to get it," he said.
This May, his wife, Andrea, and son, Logan, will watch him commence a new chapter in life when he receives his degree.
A second University of Idaho student, not yet publicly named, is also receiving financial assistance from Operation Education.
"We are encouraged that our vision for Operation Education has been realized so readily," said Karen White, University of Idaho first lady and chair of the scholarship program.
The privately funded Operation Education scholarship program - launched in July 2006 by the University of Idaho - offers financial and social support as well as other resources to help veterans who have been severely and permanently wounded in service since Sept. 11, 2001 and who are seeking to obtain a college degree. The scholarships also are available to the spouses of wounded veterans. The program is the first of its kind in the nation.
"The Operation Education scholarship program is making a meaningful difference in the lives of the wounded veterans that it supports, as well as their families" said White. "This program stands as a model for other colleges and universities in the nation and we encourage other institutions to establish similar programs for veterans seeking to complete an education and transition to civilian life."
For more information or to obtain an application, veterans should contact John Sawyer at the University of Idaho, (208) 885-7979 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.uidaho.edu/OperationEducation.Gifts in support of Operation Education may be made by calling the University of Idaho at (208) 885-7069 or toll-free (866) 671-7041, or online at www.uidaho.edu/givetoidaho.
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