LEWISTON – Karl R. Hinterberger faced an uphill battle when he returned from the war in Bosnia.
He joined the U.S. Army as a mechanic in 1995 and was in Bosnia from 1996 to 1997. He said he enjoyed his time in the service but left sooner than planned to make his family a priority.
When he came back to this country, he struggled to find work, first as a mechanic and then in construction, before deciding to attend Bryant & Stratton College to explore the expanding field of computer science. But Hinterberger, 41, said even with that degree, jobs were difficult to find, and years later he also found himself dealing with post traumatic stress disorder.
By 2011, he decided to set some new goals, and in May he will graduate with honors from Niagara University with a bachelor’s degree in computer science and a minor in business. He also wants to use his experiences as a veteran to help others.
During his time at Niagara, Hinterberger stepped out of his shell to become an active volunteer and an advocate for veterans, working in the university’s Veteran Services Office, under the direction of coordinator Robert Healy, and using his talents to design brochures and logos and even coordinate veterans events.
“I think we complement each other very well,” said Healy, who noted Hinterberger’s willingness to help other veterans, as well as other students on campus.
As an avid disc golfer Hinterberger organized the Niagara University Veteran Services Office Memorial Day Disc Golf Tournament, which will be held on Memorial Day in Joseph Davis State Park in Lewiston. Each participant receives a dog tag with the name of a fallen hero, and proceeds benefit the Command Sgt. Maj. Fred E. Kirtchen Scholarship Fund to support veterans, service members and their dependents. More information on the tournament, including sponsorships and registration, is available at www.niagara.edu/discgolf.
Hinterberger admits he has come a long way since he was an Army mechanic in 1995.
“Fifteen years ago, I had no idea I would be where I am now. I thought I would be a grease monkey breaking my knuckles,” he said of his journey.
He and his wife, Angela, who live in West Seneca, have been married for 19 years and are the parents of three children, including his oldest son, who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.
What was your rank when you left the service?
I was a corporal. I was a diesel mechanic and a 60 gunner. When I came back, I started looking for jobs related to the mechanics field because that’s what I knew, but I knew I wanted to go to school for computing.
What was it like when you came back from Bosnia?
I got out in 1997. When I first got out of the service, it was kind of a culture shock. I was newly married. My wife did not like the military, and I did not want to move around with my children. But to this day it is my defining characteristic. I loved the military, but I served my time. It was time to get out. But it was scary. It wasn’t like it is today. They didn’t have veteran coordinators. They didn’t have anybody telling you what to do.
What do you mean scary. Were you injured?
I wasn’t injured in Bosnia, but I was injured in the service. There was an accident that hurt my knees, so I had a service-connected injury and then going through the whole VA process, you didn’t know where to go.
How was it different than it is today?
Post 9/11, the VA really started to focus more on the veterans. Before that, the facilities were outdated, and they didn’t have the support they have today. The whole system has changed a lot in 15 years.
Why did you choose to go back to school, to Niagara University?
I got laid off in 2011. I talked to the VA, and they said I could go back to school. My niece was looking at Niagara University, and I came with her to check out the school, and the school just clicked right off the bat. The small classrooms, the writing center, the library. Everybody I spoke to was supportive. On top of that, my favorite color was purple – the Purple Eagles.
Had you been working in the computer science field before you got laid off in 2011?
There were a lot of people looking for work. I had an associate’s degree, but they were looking for people with bachelor’s degrees, which is one thing I didn’t have.
Did you come here for an education or to change your life?
When I first came here, it was for education only, but the one thing I did not do at Bryant & Stratton – and it was my biggest mistake – was I didn’t network myself. I made an oath to myself to know everybody, from the janitor to the president, and they are going to know me. Because I realized from my last two jobs that I learned about them from people I knew or had known in previous employment.
How did you do that?
I had to break my habit of being anti-social. I did it through this office – the Veterans Services Office. My first project was trying to establish a day care center on campus.
Were you able to do that?
No, but it’s still a dream of mine, but that’s how I got to know people around the campus.
I find this hard to believe, but you said you were anti-social?
I don’t like big crowds ... it’s a very uncomfortable situation for me.
Were you always like that or was that because of your military background?
I was a social butterfly when I was a kid, but military personnel get trained to assess their environment, so to assess your environment, you have to remove yourself from your environment. It pulls you back. It’s common among most veterans. This is a very veteran-friendly school. These classes are small. There is a vet lounge where people can go to get away from others.
What other groups are you involved with?
I was an officer for the Student Veterans Organization for a while. I am the president of SALUTE, which is a veterans honor society. I am a member of the American Sign Language Organization. I am chairman of the commuter advocacy board. I am the tournament director for the disc golf tournament, which we are holding for a second year. I am also a member of Beta Alpha Psi, the honor society for computer sciences for maintaining a 3.25 or higher.
How did you get involved in disc golf?
My uncle got me involved with disc golf. My knees are just beyond painful. I need low impact. I started playing and realized I was focusing more on missing that little basket than the pain from my knees. It gets me walking with an objective and helps me to ignore the pain.
Tell me about your involvement with Dog Tags Niagara (which uses transitioning combat veterans to rehabilitate dogs at the SPCA of Niagara shelter).
They were looking for fundraising support, and they came to the student veterans organization. They were looking for someone to design a logo for them, and Mr. Healy said there was someone who is a veteran who can do that for you.
Do you have a dog?
I have a service animal, but it is not a dog. My animal is my blue and gold macaw.
A macaw? That’s a bird. What would you use a blue and gold macaw for?
Because she talks back. When her talons are gripping on my shoulder, it is a comfort thing. I can talk to her, and she talks back, but without judging.
Are they expensive to purchase?
Actually, mine was donated to me. It was recommended by my therapist that I get a companion animal. I’ve always enjoyed birds. I saw her on Craigslist. I went and talked to the owner in Grand Island for about three hours and explained why I was looking, and when we asked how much, the guy said I know she’s going to a good home and gave us everything, even the cages.
Have you decided what you want to do when you graduate in May?
I have an affinity for veterans. The reason why I took a minor in business is that I took all the prerequisites to get an MBA. I am hoping to become the IT director at the VA Hospital. Currently there’s less than 10 percent of veterans employed through the VA system.
It’s hard when you’re a veteran and you are talking to someone, and they don’t understand what your concerns are. They have an urgency to them. That’s how they are trained.
So you have a new career goal that you hadn’t thought of when you started out.
I have a good job waiting for me after this, but I’d much rather work doing something with veterans. I’ve worked to survive, now it’s time to follow a passion.
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