After serving in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Illinois Army National Guard, Sgt. 1st Class Blake Schroedter knows how difficult it can be for young soldiers to transition from the battlefield to life back home.
“You’re 21. You don’t really understand what you’ve gone through,” said Schroedter, who enlisted as a high school senior just before 9/11 and at age 20 was fighting in Iraq. “You really don’t have time to reflect.”
Now 30 and pursuing a doctorate in psychology, Schroedter counsels former service members at the Evanston Vet Center. He and fellow students at Chicago’s Adler School of Professional Psychology are also working on a treatment program to help veterans manage and work through stress.
Schroedter, who’s still in the Guard, will be honored for his service and course work at Sunday’s Bears game as the NFL-Tillman Military Scholar. The annual award is named after Army Cpl. Pat Tillman, the former Arizona Cardinals player who was killed in Afghanistan.
“(Schroedter) has really lived and breathed that code of service,” said Marie Tillman, the soldier’s widow and president and co-founder of the Chicago-based Pat Tillman Foundation, which partners with the league for the award. “He’s served in the military and continues to do so, but also his educational focus is really on how can he help the veteran community and how can he help those who he has seen struggle.”
The treatment he and classmates are developing — a modified mindfulness meditation stress reduction program — could be tested on service members as early as next year. The program allows veterans to use a computer or mobile device to work through the stress that many experience after returning from combat.
When Schroedter came back from Iraq, he said he sought mental health counseling but dropped out after one session. His therapist wasn’t a veteran, he said.
“I just didn’t feel that connection,” said Schroedter, who grew up in Newton, in southeast Illinois. “It’s kind of hard when someone says, ‘I can imagine what you’ve been through.'”
As someone who has been through battle and can empathize — not just sympathize — with the horrors of conflict, Schroedter believes that he can help combat veterans work through psychological issues. That experience also serves him well in the classroom, said Adler faculty member Grady Osten-Garner.
“Having prior service, he really brings a lot of life to the classroom,” said Osten-Garner, coordinator of the school’s military clinical psychology track for doctoral students. “His professional experiences really do help to inform the curriculum.”
After graduation, Schroedter said, he hopes to serve as a clinical psychologist in the National Guard while also working with veterans in a hospital or clinic. Osten-Garner, a former Army reservist, called Schroedter a “rock star” student who “has a really well-regarded career behind him and just a tremendous career ahead of him.”
“I would serve with this man any time,” Osten-Garner said. “I would love to have him in my unit. I’m very impressed with him as a soldier and a student.”