Veteran seeks degree to pay it forward

Nov 11, 2019

Ismael Alvarez knew from a very young age that he wanted to be a soldier. He was in the second grade when he attended his sister’s Army basic training graduation and knew right away he wanted to do that, too.

He enlisted in the United States Army in 2004 after finishing high school. During his time in the Army, he received training in both the infantry and airborne fields. He worked hard to become a sergeant and a squad leader. His life was happening just the way he’d planned it.

Six and a half years later, those plans took a turn.

Ismael Alvarez shares a Rice Krispie treat with a child during a tour in Afghanistan.

Alvarez was serving during his second tour overseas in 2009 when the vehicle he was driving hit a roadside bomb.

“Luckily, I was the only one seriously injured that day,” he said.

For most, “luckily” wouldn’t be the word used to describe the moment that would completely alter a life. But Alvarez used that word because “I was responsible for those two men with me that day. My job was to get them home in one piece to their families.”

For the next five months, Alvarez was learning to walk on his own again. In 2010, he left his plans for an Army career behind him and concentrated on healing.

Along the way, he met his best friend, a brindle Pit Bull he calls Izzy.

“I was visiting the KC Pet Project and there was this dog named Ishmael just sitting there as calm as can be. He was the only one not barking. When we went to the little visiting room, he just came right up to me, sat down and leaned on my bad leg. He looked up at me … I was hooked.”

Because their names are essentially the same, Alvarez shortened Ishmael to Izzy to avoid confusion in the household. Izzy goes where Alvarez goes and has been there for him through some pretty tough times, serving as his unofficial service dog.

Alvarez and Izzy

Alvarez sustained severe injuries to both his leg and his arm and the road ahead of him was a long one. He went through years of therapy for his physical injuries and is still working at it, but his healing didn’t stop there.

“I have physical and mental issues — I’ve had help throughout these past 10 years through therapy and I’ve gotten to a good place and I wanted to give back.”

That desire to give back was what led him to Newman University.

After working with the Veterans Affairs office in Wichita, Alvarez decided to take advantage of the vocational rehabilitation and employment benefits for servicemembers and veterans who have service-related injuries.

The process involved interviewing professionals in three different fields of interest, and from his three, he decided on occupational therapy.

Studying occupational therapy is also helping him to understand his own recovery process after years of hearing doctors and therapists use terminology he didn’t quite relate to.

“I’ve been through so many physical therapy appointments. Now, taking certain classes and as I learn more, it’s a way for me to figure out what muscles are hurting and why.”

He said he’s already had a few opportunities to help others in one way or another, from a stranger he met in a restaurant struggling with addiction to a classroom of elementary students who were gathered to learn about the military and how servicemen and women help our country.

“It’s humbling doing that, especially in front of an audience, being able to tell other people what I went through and inspiring them in different ways.”

Alvarez said making the decision to seek a college degree was one that took some time. He was nervous to return as an older, nontraditional student. He wasn’t confident in his ability to sit and focus through the pain he still experiences in his leg and arm.

“I was really nervous about coming back to school after so many years. But everyone has been really helpful. I have met with some students for help with midterms in a group study. I love being able to use the equipment to help study and everyone is really friendly.”

He received his official acceptance letter into the Newman occupational therapy assistant program in October and will be part of the January 2020 cohort. He said he can’t wait to get started.

“I want to give back where I can, but I would really love to eventually work with veterans. I’ve just had so much help from other veterans — it would be an honor to give back to that community.”