Veterans Find Warm Welcome at Illinois Wesleyan

Tim Leiser ’16

Tim Leiser ’16

It’s taken him eight years, including two tours of Iraq and one in Afghanistan, but Tim Leiser’16 is now a student at Illinois Wesleyan.

A native of the Chicago suburb of Mundelein, Leiser first applied to Illinois Wesleyan while he was still in high school. He was not admitted, so he started college at Augustana College before running out of money after his first year. His parents had told him paying for college was his responsibility; student loans were not an option for him. So he moved back to the Chicagoland area, angry and depressed at what seemed the end to his college career. He took a job driving a delivery truck and quickly determined living paycheck to paycheck was not really living.

The idea to join the military may have originated in the long line of servicemen in Leiser’s family. He said he may have even decided to talk to a recruiter out of spite for an offhand remark his father made as Leiser left to college. Nevertheless, with the economy tanking in 2008 and feeling he lacked other options, Leiser made the rounds of recruiting offices, eventually signing with the U.S. Army.

Leiser completed several trainings: Air Assault School, Airborne, Mountain Warfare, PATHFINDER — culminating in U.S. Army Ranger School. The two-month combat leadership course is intense. Leiser said 330 soldiers began with him, with only 110, including Leiser, graduating as Rangers. He was not among the top one percent of graduates selected for Elite Special Operations School; instead, Leiser went to Iraq for a nine-month deployment.After six months back in the United States, he returned to Iraq a second time for nearly a year. A six-month deployment in Afghanistan followed in 2012-13. At a forward operating base with Internet access near the end of his service, Leiser again applied to IWU and was quickly accepted. He thinks his military service made the difference this time around.

Now age 27 and a student at IWU, Leiser talks about his experiences when he’s been asked by professors to speak to their classes. He said students ask the kinds of questions that mirror common misconceptions.

“They [students] want to know if Iraq is like [the Hollywood films] Jarhead or The Hurt Locker,” said Leiser. He understands people can only ask questions from their frame of reference, but he wishes people could know about his unit’s successes, even those that didn’t appear on any commander’s plan, like the Iraqi dishwasher who’d cut his hand badly and walked 20 miles to a doctor, only to be told the hand should be amputated.

Leiser’s unit arrived in the village and learned of the man's situation. Because everyone in his unit received medical training due to the high level of danger they faced, Leiser was able to clean and stitch the man’s cut, and administer antibiotics. Three weeks later, the dishwasher was back at work. “The man gave me the only real possession he had, a part of a donkey shoe, that I wore on my Kevlar every day,” Leiser recalled. “It felt like we had a purpose there, that we were really helping people, and saving people from the horrible disease that was the Taliban.”

Some of his professors share his military background, and Leiser is thankful for the understanding he’s received from them, including longtime adjunct instructor Ron Emmons, whose stepfather made a career in the Army, and Leiser’s advisor, Professor of Sociology Jim Sikora, a Marine veteran. Leiser said other IWU staffers went out of their way to help him adjust to civilian life on a college campus when he started classes in January 2014. Assistant Dean of Students Matthew Damschroder and Doug Meyer, associate director of residential life in housing operations, helped him find an apartment where he could live without a roommate.

“I had some anxiety and was uncomfortable living with other people right away,” Leiser recalled. “The readjustment to civilian life wasn’t easy, but Doug and Matthew really took care of helping me.”

Leiser was also anxious about the University’s academic rigor, but his self-discipline and military work ethic transferred to his study habits. “I had focus, I wanted to get things done, and those things had to be perfect,” Leiser recalled of his first semester. “That reflected in my grades.” 

The transition from soldier to student went smoothly; the adjustment to citizen was more difficult. An unexpected job opportunity made an enormous impact on Leiser’s adjustment socially. Damschroder told Leiser about a summer job as a conference assistant within the Office of Residence Life (ORL). “I was apprehensive at first about working with other students, but I just jumped in,” said Leiser. By summer’s end he’d made some good friends and gotten acquainted with ORL. Staffers encouraged him to consider becoming a residential advisor, a position he first held at Gulick Hall. Eventually he transferred to another residence hall to take over a floor that was termed “trouble” by other RAs. Staff Sergeant Leiser had no problem with those residents. He understood they meant no real harm; they were just young and didn’t think much about the consequences of their actions.

Leiser was once that way himself. He knows he’s different, in so many ways, from the guy who raced everyone else to be first to jump in the pool, fully clothed in high school graduation robes. He no longer likes being the center of attention; in fact, he prefers it when no one pays any attention to him. He still struggles with large crowds, and would much prefer to talk with someone one-on-one.

He’s looking forward to finishing his degree in May. With majors in both computer science and sociology, Leiser is interested in working in predictive analytics. Or he might earn a master’s degree. Perhaps he’ll go into law enforcement, or work as a private contractor outside the U.S. He enjoys trying to better understand interactions between cultural groups and institutions, and the breakdowns that can lead to social disorder. He’s not worried at all about what the future may hold. And he’ll graduate without debt thanks to the Yellow Ribbon Program, in which IWU participates.

“I’ve always appreciated people who work hard for what they want,” Leiser said. “In the Army, I respected every rank above my own. They’d earned those stripes. I wanted to be that rank as well.

“It’s the same thing here,” he added of his time at IWU. “I respect so many people here for how hard they work. I’ve challenged myself to achieve, and a lot of people have helped me do that. I knew this would be a great place for me. It just look me a while to get here.”