Iraq veteran aims to improve outdoor opportunities for others
CHAMPAIGN — A University of Illinois graduate student who served in the Iraq War is working to provide outdoor opportunities for area veterans, especially those with disabilities.
Eric Swenson, 27, of Paxton, joined the Army shortly after his graduation from Princeton High School in 2005.
Swenson served in Ar-Ramadi, Iraq, as part of the surge — a deployment of more than 20,000 soldiers to assist with the war on terror — from 2006 to 2007.
"It was the peak of the surge, and Ar-Ramadi saw some of the most intense fighting of the entire war," he said.
When he came home in 2009, Swenson enrolled at the University of Illinois to study natural resources and environmental sciences.
During his time on campus, Swenson, a married dad with two children, became sensitive to the needs of former military personnel among the student population, especially those who were wounded or became disabled in the line of duty.
Swenson estimates there are 400 veterans who attend classes at the UI, and he expects the numbers to increase with the upcoming addition of the Center for Wounded Veterans.
"The UI has a surprisingly large veterans community," Swenson said.
In an effort to provide camaraderie among UI Veterans, Swenson is starting a new softball team made exclusively of student veterans.
"One of the goals of having this softball team is to help raise awareness for students who are veterans," he said. "The UI is in position to provide a lot of healing for veterans, and we are in a great position to provide some community healing. It is my hope the softball team will bring veterans and their civilian counterparts closer together."
He said the team will begin play this fall in a Champaign Park District league.
"We've already had 10 people sign up for our team, which is amazing since the season is still months away," he said. "By playing in a Champaign Park District league, we will be playing against people who might not otherwise see us every day."
He added that Parkland College will be working with the team to accommodate any players with disabilities so they will be able to take part.
Swenson said he isn't sure what the team colors will be.
"There's a problem here," he said. "I was in the Army, and there are guys and women who were in the Navy, Air Force and Marines. So if I pick olive drab, I might get into a little bit of trouble."
Swenson said he hopes the team will help increase camaraderie among UI student veterans.
"I didn't meet another veteran for years after I enrolled at the UI," he said. "Now we have the Illini Veterans, which is a club on campus."
One common problem among student veterans, he said, is that going to college following military service means that, by and large, the veterans are several years older than most of their classmates.
"When I was taking Chem 101, my lab partner was an 18-year-old kid from the Chicago area and had just come out of high school," Swenson said. "Meanwhile, I was married, and my first son had been born. We had nothing in common. For many veterans, coming to college can be a culture shock. A big challenge for anyone going to college is finding a group that you can fit into. I hope this softball team will provide that opportunity."
Swenson is working with the Ford County chapter of Pheasants Forever to organize a pheasant hunt for veterans in rural Gibson City on a Saturday this October. The date has not been set.
"I have been an outdoorsman my whole life, and I study pheasants," Swenson said. "I came up with the idea of the pheasant hunt as a way to bring together veterans from different wars, different ages and different disability levels in one place.
"Young veterans, by and large, aren't joining groups like the American Legion or the VFW at the same rates as previous generations. I think this is a mistake because the members of these organizations have a lot of experience they can share with us."
Swenson said Pheasants Forever will be sponsoring the cost for 50 veterans to take part in the hunt, a total of about $1,200, and will provide lunch.
"It is going to be completely free for the veterans," he said. "And we want to include 20 veterans who have mobility limitations and other disabilities that prevent them from otherwise being able to pheasant hunt. We are going to provide them with a wheelchair-accessible cart. We want veterans who were injured in combat or otherwise to actually go out and hunt."
He is also making arrangements for UI student veterans to ride together to Ford County to take part.
"If you are not a hunter and you want to get a first experience, this would be an excellent opportunity," Swenson said.
Veterans who are interested in taking part may contact Swenson at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 217-379-8012.
"Veterans have given a lot, and they have a lot to give back," Swenson said. "It's a good feeling to be with other veterans who have a shared experience, and it's a good feeling to be reminding the Champaign-Urbana community that we are here, and we want to continue to serve. If knocking a few softballs out of the park accomplishes that, it's a great win for everybody."