CATE HARTMANN A returning student draws on her own experience to lend fellow veterans a hand.
Cate Hartmann can still conjure the smell of burning oil wells and decaying bodies in bombed-out tanks she encountered while traveling Iraq’s Highway to Hell during the first Persian Gulf War.
She’s since left the military and built successful careers in agriculture and accounting. But memories of her service—and everything after—brought her to The University of Iowa this year.
Hartmann is studying rehabilitation counseling, intent on a new career helping other veterans. Right now, however, she’s helping others make the leap from military to college life.
“I don’t want to hand the next generation of veterans anything less than the best I can,” Hartmann says.
To serve her country in Operation Desert Storm, Hartmann, then 36, had to leave her fifth-grade son behind with relatives. She’d later go through a divorce during her 11 months overseas.
Hartmann was first deployed to a small Army computer unit, where she served as a sergeant E5 noncommissioned officer in a movement control team. But through a chance encounter, she became an administrative assistant for the deputy commanding general of transportation for southwest Asia.
In her new role, she would help brief everyone from former President George H.W. Bush to Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
After returning home, Hartmann began to experience distressing symptoms. Stabbing pains and twitching wracked her arms. Numbness made it hard to use her hands. Profound headaches rendered her immobile. She knew something was seriously wrong.
One morning she couldn’t get out of bed. “My entire right side was paralyzed,” Hartmann says. Her son rushed her to the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Chicago.
After five years of pain and visits to three different VA facilities, Hartmann got an accurate diagnosis—relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (MS).
Back then, some VA hospitals were ill-equipped to care for women, even lacking beds for female patients. “At one time, my room was a broom closet,” Hartmann says, noting that the experience fueled her interest in returning to school and assisting women veterans.
She used a walker upon her release from the hospital, but shunned most medications in favor of physical therapy, diet, exercise, and self-hypnosis using biofeedback, a regimen that helped quiet her symptoms. Her disease is now in remission, and Hartmann proudly notes that she walks without a limp. She even rides a motorcycle to and from class many days.
Hartmann is one of about 300 veterans—approximately 60 of them women—currently on campus, according to Larry Lockwood, assistant provost for enrollment services in the Office of the Registrar. The University continues to develop resources that help veterans adjust and succeed.
In 2005, students organized the UI Student Veterans Association. In 2006, they helped establish the UI Veterans Center, a unit of the registrar’s office. Hartmann now works at the center as a counselor, offering one-on-one support and designing group activities aimed at giving women veterans a sense of community.
“For example, we get together and do scrapbooking, which is both cathartic and community building,” Hartmann says. “We just get together and talk and spring for a pizza, and it’s kind of a release valve. And it doesn’t cost a penny.”
Hartmann also spearheaded bringing the film Lioness: There for The Action, Missing From History to the UI campus Nov. 10 as a way to illuminate the important contributions that women in the military make — and the special challenges that they face — but that are often invisible.
She plans to continue specializing in work with female veterans once she earns her master’s degree from the College of Education. “The University is very well respected nationwide,” she says. “This particular program meets the accreditation requirements of so many states that I can’t lose.”
She knows firsthand how confusing and frustrating it can be for veterans to access benefits, counseling, and funding for higher education, and she’s especially intent on helping others navigate challenges in the health care system.
“Everybody thinks that veterans have it so made and that you get all these benefits,” Hartmann says. “But collecting these benefits is like pulling teeth.”
Hartmann thinks even more needs to be done to help veterans who’ve made a huge sacrifice, leaving behind family, friends, and home—and often returning with physical and emotional trauma.
“These people will be forever changed by these experiences,” Hartmann says. “In milk, cream comes to the top. They’re the cream, and we need to provide them with all the tools to come to the top.”
Story by Lois Gray; Photo by Kirk Murray
November 2, 2009