Conference focuses on vets


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Jon Kerstetter leaned heavily on a carved light-brown cane, a cane he needs after enduring 10 surgeries in 18 months.

The Army veteran read poetically from one of his short stories — "Experiment 5" — which he wrote as a part of a veterans' writers' workshop last spring.

"You now have a patient you did absolutely nothing to save, because his brain was shot clear out of his skull," he read.

Kerstetter's reading was part of the reception for the first University of Iowa Statewide Veterans Conference on Tuesday.

The reception was the culmination of a day of presentations and discussions regarding veterans in Iowa and better ways to serve them.

"This is a national health issue, a national education issue," said Michael Hall, a neuropsychologist at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center who delivered a talk during the conference. "Really, the collaboration … is what has been fantastic."

Hall's talk focused on issues facing returning soldiers — such as post-traumatic stress disorder, physical pain, sleep problems, or substance abuse — and some of the ways the VA is trying to help.

With 385 veteran soldiers enrolled at the UI, organizers said, programs to aid rehabilitation are important.

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"We often see veterans are more comfortable among groups of veterans," said Jennifer Modestou, the director of the UI Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity. "It is easier for them to relate with the experiences they have rather than compared with other students."

And for Al Flyr, a veteran of the Vietnam War, the veterans' writers' workshop gave him a chance to relate.

"I think a lot of it is maybe some kind of understanding. I believe that I saw war as being something that doesn't make sense, you cannot understand it, it is just treated as an isolated incident, and you have to go around it," he said. "So this is going back and looking at what changes it might have made in me."

Flyr's experience at the workshop led him to take a nonfiction writing course at the UI this semester, and he plans to take more.

But experts say not all veterans are taking advantage of some of the options available to them, and this conference was meant to help that.

"What we are trying to do is focus on what we can do for our veterans and National Guard troops," said University Registrar Larry Lockwood. "How can we help them finish their degrees."

The UI has more than a few options for veterans to receive help. There is a new class focused on discussing biological psychology and post-deployment issues that soldiers may face, as well as a full-time veterans' adviser, John Mikelson.

And while this conference was the first of its kind, organizers said they are hopeful real progress and growth will come from it.

"I think most of the people said we ought to do this again, and we will have twice as many people," Lockwood said. "It will connect all of the people who were involved here and try to make sure veterans and their families are supported and they get through school."

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