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UMD’s Heroes Fund aims to help returning vets finish school

Rick Smith (left), who started the UMD Heroes Scholarship with his wife, Dianna, holds up one of the dog tags for sale to raise money for the Heroes Fund Scholarship as Adam Muilenburg, a Minnesota Army National Guard member, and Christa Wood, a heavy equipment operator with the 148th Fighter Wing, listen. The Heroes Fund Scholarship committee will hold a fundraising event Thursday at Clyde Iron Works. (Steve Kuchera / / 3
Adam Muilenburg waters plants in the University of Minnesota Duluth greenhouse Monday morning. A biology major, Muilenburg is also a member of the Minnesota Army National Guard. He has served on three deployments and is scheduled for a fourth. He is active with the UMD Veterans Club and fundraising efforts for the Heroes Fund Scholarship for veterans. (Steve Kuchera / / 3
Christa Wood, a heavy equipment operator with the 148th Fighter Wing, talks about the difficulties of attending college while serving in the National Guard. (Steve Kuchera / / 3

Christa Wood is no slacker when it comes to college. She’s far from it. It’s just taking her longer than most to get through classes at the University of Minnesota Duluth because of one important fact: She’s serving in the military.

“I think it took me six years to get a two-year degree,” she said with a laugh Monday.

She’s a heavy equipment operator for the 148th Fighter Wing in Duluth and first deployed to Afghanistan in 2009.

She’s also had a child to care for at home until kindergarten eased her load.

It’s juggling schedules like that, coupled with finding money to go to school for part-time military members, that makes the establishment of a scholarship fund at UMD important, Wood said.

She’ll be on another tour next semester in the midst of finishing a four-year degree.

Army National Guard member Adam Muilenburg will graduate this spring, just before a tour in Kuwait, his fourth deployment.

He said active-duty military members like him receive full tuition benefits for school, but part-time Guard members get funding more sparingly, and it depends on time spent overseas. It’s a conundrum of sorts. To receive more benefits like education funding, they have to spend more time overseas and away from home and school.

The scholarship, established last year as the Heroes Fund, is in the throes of a fundraising effort toward a $25,000 endowment. Veterans and supporters are selling commemorative dog tags around campus and in the community. The big deal is Thursday night at Clyde Iron Works, a reception where entry is gained by buying a tag, which have numbers that will be drawn for prizes. The event starts at 4:30 p.m.

Tags are being sold at UMD stores and will be available Thursday at Kirby Lounge. Holiday gas stations are also selling tags.

After starting the fund last year with his wife, Dianna, Rick Smith wanted to open up the scholarship to include any students in any college at the university. It originally included only education and human service majors. Once the $25,000 goal is reached, an active military member or veteran will be eligible for a scholarship.

Smith said there is $5,000 in the account and, if 2,000 of the $5 tags are sold, there will be $8,000 more. Once the endowment is secure, scholarships will be awarded off the interest earned by the account. Smith said $4.24 from each tag goes directly into the fund.

“We’re on our way,” said Andy Kimball, a Heroes Fund board member. A board of veterans selects scholarship students from records at UMD. Members hope an application process will be used in the future.

“Rick was instrumental,” Kimball said.

“It’s just a way of giving back to those who served,” Smith said. “We have a vet-friendly campus but wanted to enhance that.” Smith is director of the American Indian Learning Resource Center at UMD.

Wood and Muilenburg spoke about the scholarship while sitting in the Veterans Club lounge. The club was established five years ago as area veterans were coming off long stints in Iraq.

It’s been another “great asset” for veterans returning to school, Muilenburg said.

It helped him to return from a tour and see some friendly faces and to talk about similar experiences in the military, he said.

“It’s an instant connection,” Wood said.

Club members do community service work such as picking up litter along Midway Road, collecting toys for the holidays, and performing home projects for other veterans.

The push for the scholarship endowment is ongoing, Kimball said. The message is going out via social media and the hope is that the event Thursday will generate even more attention.

“This isn’t the end of it,” he said.

Get involved

Military-style Heroes Fund dog tags may be purchased for $5 each at stores at the University of Minnesota Duluth and Holiday gas stations across the city. A dog tag purchase will be the entry into a Thursday fundraising event for the scholarship that goes to military members and veterans to attend UMD. The social event begins at 4:30 p.m. at Clyde Iron Works, 2920 W. Michigan St., and features snacks and drawings for prizes.