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Soldier Takes 'Less Traveled Road' To Graduation

Dec. 12, 2013
SHSU Media Contact: Julia May

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Jonathan Leal has been a student employee, rugby player, foster child advocate and soldier while earning his degree at Sam Houston State University. — Photo by Brian Blalock

 

For Sam Houston State University kinesiology major Jonathan Leal, of Brenham, the path to getting a degree has taken a few twists and turns.

While attending SHSU, he has been, at times, a typical student, taking classes on campus, participating in student organizations, and playing sports.

But at other times instead of studying in a comfortable, cozy library and logging onto his personal computer at his convenience, he has read his textbooks in a tent under whatever electricity and lighting was available during conditions ranging from freezing cold to desert heat and squeezed in his assignments whenever he could manage access to a computer.

That’s because, while attending SHSU, his main occupation has been serving his country in the Middle East as a soldier in the U. S. Army.

Leal grew up in a military family and knew from a young age that he wanted to continue the family tradition. After graduation from high school, he first went to Blinn College and then transferred a year later to SHSU.

Because he had always loved sports, and because he knew he would be eventually seeking a career in medicine with the army, he decided to major in kinesiology.

“At the time, I had no idea just how beneficial my studies in anatomy would be,” he said. “But I later found out how important that knowledge was.”

Knowing that the military was going to be an integral part of his life, Leal enlisted in 2010 and began his transition from civilian to soldier that summer. He completed his Basic and Advanced Individual Training as an army 68W—also known as a “68 Whiskey,” or combat medic—at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio and became a licensed EMT.

With some time on his hands before going back to Sam Houston, he then decided to attend the prestigious Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service Fire Academy.

“I felt that combining my EMT training with the skills I would learn as a firefighter would give me a broader spectrum of knowledge with the work I would do as a medic in the army,” he said. “It would also give me another career choice after my service is completed.”

By the spring of 2012, Leal was able to resume his studies at SHSU, and he began life again as a regular student.

Leal was active with the "Pay It Forward" student organization, which interacts with foster children.

One of his classes was in communication studies. His professor was Terri Jaggers, a passionate advocate for the care of foster children and the adviser for the “Pay It Forward” student organization. Jaggers’s enthusiasm was contagious, and Leal soon became a member of the organization.

“Our Pay It Forward students have various projects involving foster children throughout the year, and even though Jonathan had a busy schedule, he spent quality time with those kids,” Jaggers said. “He made some wonderful contributions to the organization with his involvement.”

Leal’s “normal” routine with his classes was short-lived, however. In the middle of the semester, he received orders to report to Fort Hood for a month of mobilization training to prepare to deploy.

Fortunately for Leal, his professors at SHSU were willing to work with him to help him complete the semester.

“When our young men and women are serving our country and working to get an education at the same time, we, as professors, should do what we can to assist them,” Jaggers said. “I respect very much that Jonathan made the decision to get his degree at Sam Houston, and that he wanted to succeed. I felt that I was responsible for doing what I could to help him get what he needed to fulfill his obligations to the class, and would also allow him to do what he needed to do to fulfill his commitment to our country.”

Leal excelled in his work and when he returned to class from training before the end of the semester, he picked up “right where he needed, as if he had not missed any class time,” Jaggers said.

That summer, Leal took some time off from school to prepare for going to the National Training Center at Fort Irwin in California in September. After training for route clearance patrol with the 321st Engineer Company, he was sent to Fort Bliss in El Paso. From there he was deployed to Afghanistan, where he served from December 2012 until the end of September 2013.

Although he was halfway around the world from the SHSU campus, he was not the only Bearkat in his platoon. His friend Trevor Meysembourg, a political science major with whom Leal had played rugby at SHSU, was there, along with another student and two young men from Huntsville.

They spent the first six months of deployment in Kunduz and the last three months at the multinational military base Camp Marmal—the main northern base for the NATO-led coalition, located in Mezar-e-Sharif.

Back at SHSU, Leal had not been forgotten.

Jaggers approached the members of Pay It Forward and asked if they were wanted to take on a “different” project in addition to the work they did with foster children.

“I told them that there was a fellow Bearkat who has participated in the organization and had been deployed, and we could do things like communicate with him and send care packages if they were interested,” she said.

“They responded enthusiastically and not only did we send letters and packages to Jonathan, we included his entire platoon,” she said.

Leal was overwhelmed with gratitude.

“Ms. Jaggers had told me that I would be receiving packages, but I had no idea that so many other Sam Houston students who didn’t even know me personally had taken the time to show that they cared,” he said. “It was a great feeling and it meant so much to me.”

One day, Leal called Jaggers and said that he would be returning home at the end September and had the chance to graduate in December if he could figure out some way to take classes online from Afghanistan.

“I made some phone calls, found out what courses he could take, and got him advised,” Jaggers said.

One of the classes he registered for was an Academic Community Engagement communications course being taught by Jaggers.

“I sent the textbook to him and was able to speak with his superiors and we worked together to integrate some the responsibilities he had with his platoon into assignments he had for class,” she said. “It really worked out well.

“When he came back home, he walked into the class and everyone was so excited to see him,” she said. “It was as if he had been there all the time, because we had incorporated him into the class.”

Leal had also done what he could to remain connected to SHSU.

“At our Pay It Forward banquet this year, Jonathan called in from Afghanistan and we put him on speaker so he could participate in the festivities long-distance,” she said.

It may sound as if Leal has had to overcome many distractions, but he said it has been easier than one might think because of the support he’s had from his SHSU professors.

“They were extremely understanding and helpful in keeping me on board,” said Leal. “Especially Ms. Jaggers and my adviser Dr. Gary Oden in kinesiology.”

“We set up the Internet to accommodate him for the classes he took under me,” Oden said. “I would set deadlines for my class about when assignments were due. But with him, I didn’t give him hard deadlines.

“I would tell him ‘Let’s see how much you can get done by this particular date.’ If there were times he would contact me and tell me that he needed more time, I would say ‘OK, let’s switch gears here.’”

Leal (right) and fellow Bearkat Tevor Meysembourg proudly displayed a Sam Houston State University flag at Camp Marmal in Afghanistan.

Oden was aware of Leal’s difficulty in having convenient access to the technology he needed for classes.

Poor reception made personal computers practically useless. Working computers that were available on the base were hard to come by—there were 14 computers for use by approximately 200 soldiers, limited to 30 minutes at a time. The telephone situation was about the same. And there were periods of time when the army base had communication blackouts.

“We would work it out to where we would try to get as much of the classwork done as we possibly could when he knew he would have access to a computer,” said Oden. “Where the other students in the class would be able to go week-by-week, Jonathan might have to get as many things as he could get done for class in two days. I had to be more flexible with his deadlines to accommodate his access to technology. We could communicate occasionally, but not frequently.”

Although it might have required a bit more effort on Oden’s part, he said he never felt that he was doing anything special for Leal.

“We weren’t reducing the standards or the amount of work he had to do; we were just changing the way we arranged the work for him,” he said. “This guy is doing something for the country; can’t we do something to help him?

“I can’t imagine somebody not wanting to work like this with this kid. First, he’s a good guy,” Oden said. “But, he’s in Afghanistan and why wouldn’t we work with him? I’d be appalled if somebody wouldn’t help him.”

When Leal returned to SHSU two months ago, he immediately went into action keep the project that had meant so much to him going.

“I got together with some of the other Pay It Forward organization members, Sam Houston’s ROTC program, and the Veterans Resource Center. We raised approximately $1,000 for 53 care packages to be sent to Bearkats in Afghanistan,” he said. “I know it will mean as much to them as it did to me.”

Leal will graduate on Dec. 13 and then report to Fort Sam Houston on Dec. 16 to begin flight physicals and testing. He will re-sign his contract for eight more years with the army and hopes to be a Blackhawk helicopter pilot to perform medical evacuation in combat.

Wherever he ends up, those who know him have no doubt that he will continue to represent Sam Houston State University well.

“He’s just really an outstanding young man,” said Jaggers. “A quality human being. I can’t say enough good things about him.”

 

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