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  Veteran Affairs can’t do everything,” says Iraq War veteran Robert Malnik, who has created programs to help guide service personnel returning from overseas. Photo Credit: Lloyd DeGrane  

Transition Specialist

Iraq War veteran Robert Malnik helps returning military personnel readjust to civilian life.

Robert Malnik ’09 AHS never thought of himself as a leader, but life had other plans. He signed up for active duty with the U.S. Army in June 2000, when peacekeeping missions were the most action that soldiers saw. Stationed in Germany, Malnik settled into what he thought would be a somewhat quiet life as a tank crewman. 

“Then 9/11 happened, and all of a sudden it was ‘Welcome to the military,’” he remembers. “I was immediately deployed.”

Stationed in Kosovo and Macedonia for six months each, and then in Iraq for 17 months, Malnik found his days dictated by combat. Just when his four years of service were up and he was looking forward to returning home, he found out he had to stay.

“They ‘stop-lossed’ me—I had to go to Iraq for 17 more months on top of the time I already had served,” Malnik says. “It colored my experience, mentally. It was a whole different world.”

Having lost friends in combat, Malnik doesn’t like to talk about Iraq. But his experiences as a soldier continue to impact his life. After returning home, he took advantage of the G.I. Bill and enrolled at UIC to study applied health sciences, hoping again for a quiet life. However, his military background drew the attention of faculty, who thought he would make a good leader and encouraged him to get involved in student government. Malnik resisted at first, then answered the call to serve.

The more active he was at UIC, the more aware he became that many veterans in attendance weren’t receiving their benefits in time to pay their tuition bills. Before Malnik knew it, he had revived UIC’s once-defunct Veterans Student Association and was serving as its president.

“I realized these veterans needed assistance,” he recalls. “You were shuttled around to different departments, each one telling you to go back to the last. So I went to the dean of student services and asked for help.”

Malnik worked with UIC officials to compile educational resources for veterans in one central campus location. Realizing that this wasn’t the only difficulty for returning service personnel, he and other active UIC vets started an initiative to create a “one-stop shop” to provide veterans with information about benefits, employment, education, housing and legal services.

After meetings with state and federal officials, the initiative is on its way to becoming a reality. Through Illinois Joining Forces, a program from the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs, centralized services for veterans at UIC will include an open referral network, a standardized packet of information and a web-based platform uniting 250 organizations that provide support to veterans.

“The VA can’t do everything—we want this to be that bridge,” Malnik says. “Our goal is to say, ‘Here’s a one-stop-shop packet. You might not need all the information now, but in the future, it’s here at your fingertips.’”

Malnik’s efforts also led to the establishment of the Illinois Supporting All Veterans Equally Foundation, where he served as president and CEO until transitioning to the board of directors this year. The organization spearheads the annual Illinois Warrior Summit and Welcome Home Celebration. Over the past six years, the event has grown from taking place at the UIC Forum to Soldier Field. Nearly 10,000 veterans and their families enjoyed free food, sporting events, concerts and more at this year’s event.

Malnik, who serves as Illinois government and public relations director for Wal-Mart—where he oversees a multi-million-dollar state giving program—continues to serve men and women, even if it means delaying pursuit of his master’s degree.

“We’ve been a volunteer force for seven years,” he says of the efforts he’s led at UIC. “It’s like having a second full-time job, but I wouldn’t change a thing. We have helped thousands of people. To have someone come up to you and say, ‘thank you,’ veteran to veteran—it’s the greatest feeling in the world.”    

—Sara Langen

 

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