This Memorial Day, as the nation remembers those who have sacrificed their lives to protect our freedoms, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville also joins in celebrating all veterans who have given their time and talents for that same purpose.
More than 650 veterans were enrolled at SIUE in academic year 2014-15. With them came a multitude of life experiences that have enhanced the diverse student body at SIUE.
“We are, indeed, most proud of our student veterans contributions, not only to our Nation, but also to our SIUE community,” said Narbeth Emmanuel, vice chancellor for student affairs at SIUE. “In addition to being involved in many of our student organizations, they also add diversity, and enrich the campus experience.”
The University’s Student Veteran’s Association (SVA) connected retired United States Army Staff Sergeant Richard Copple, 39, of Centralia, Ill., and former United States Air Force Airman Shannon Helmig, 36, of Jacksonville, Ill. Both are now senior English majors at SIUE with their own storied histories.
“I served 13 years in the Army,” Copple said. “It was always something I wanted to do. It was sort of tradition for the men in my family.”
After serving all over the world, Copple suffered a gunshot wound during his deployment in Iraq in 2007.
“I was the squad leader,” Copple recalled. “I was putting soldiers on a rooftop for security in a compound, and I made a rookie mistake. I stood up too long, pointing with my hands and arms giving instructions, and was shot in the knee.”
Copple underwent reconstructive surgery in Germany before returning to Fort Carson in Colorado. He says the Army offered him other opportunities, but the staff sergeant was not interested in spending the rest of his life working behind a desk.
After retiring in 2008, he returned to his hometown and later enrolled at SIUE to pursue higher education.
“I decided to take advantage of the benefits the Army offers and go back to school,” Copple said. “Just to let those thousands of dollars not be put to use seemed like a waste. It was daunting to come to campus since I had never attended a university, but it has been an overall positive experience.”
Instead of leading soldiers, Copple now leads other students as the president of the SIUE SVA.
“Veteran’s have a responsibility in their community,” he explained. “As students we have a responsibility to take the lead and take charge whenever we can.
“As a non-commissioned officer you have two priorities: the mission and the men - in that order. With that comes a lot of things, like discipline. You can translate that to anything in the world, whether you’re a student, or cutting grass, or the CEO of a billion dollar corporation. You have to do your job and accomplish your mission.”
Copple advocates for the organization and continuously supports other students and veterans.
Helping with the SVA’s mission of support and service is Helmig. As the group’s secretary, she is also a student veteran and leader on campus.
In her former life, Helmig spent time stationed in Guam, building 750-pound bombs for B-52 Bombers. During her six years of service, she completed some of her general education requirements through the Air Force’s community college.
“I learned to think on the fly, make decisions and follow orders,” Helmig said. “I enjoyed my time of service and was honored to do so. I have seen a healthy amount of respect at SIUE for those us who have served our country, and then decided to come to school.”
She now finds a sense of camaraderie through her involvement in the SVA. The group is working to form an orientation program and a mentorship program for student veterans.
“There’s an understanding of another veteran’s background, and what they mean when they say things,” she explained. “The goal of our organization is to support student veterans and their families, keep them informed and help them find any answers they need, and offer socialization.”
Copple and Helmig are just two examples of the thousands of men and women who have served and sacrificed for the United States, who are now pursuing higher education. They can be considered educators themselves as they lead by example.
“Military service is something that not a lot of people do,” said Helmig. “It’s important to remember, especially on Memorial Day, those service members who have given their lives to give us freedom. If not for them, our world would be a completely different place.”
Both Copple and Helmig are slated to graduate from SIUE in spring 2016.
Photos: (Top) Richard Copple, retired U.S. Army staff sergeant (Bottom) Shannon Helmig, former U.S. Air Force airman