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San Diego State University

@State - the SDSU Student Newsletter

SDSU Home to Military Heroes

Ironmen. Aztecs. Marines.

Clayton Treska and Eric McElvenny have a lot in common, but their remarkable journeys to San Diego State University and their resounding impact both on and off campus are as unique as they are inspirational.

Treska is one of nearly 800 student veterans at SDSU who are experts at standing their ground in the face of unimaginable challenges and unfavorable odds. 

In 2009, Treska was in his 11th year of service in the United States Marine Corps, preparing for a second tour of duty in Iraq, when he was forced to stay home and wage war against a much different adversary: stage 4 testicular cancer.

Treska didn’t let the diagnosis, the intense experimental treatments, or the possibility of failure consume him. Instead, he focused on training for the Ironman triathlon, a goal that can intimidate even the healthiest of men.

With his cancer in remission and the finish line of the 2010 Ironman World Championship behind him, Treska’s primary focus is now balanced between his undergraduate kinesiology and pre-physical therapy coursework here at SDSU and his volunteer work as an advocate for cancer patients and their families.

This year, SDSU President Elliot Hirshman nominated Treska as a CSU Trustee Scholar. Out of the 23 students selected to represent each campus in the university system, he also received the top honor of the 2013-14 Trustee Emeritus Ali C. Razi Award for Outstanding Achievement, as well as a $10,000 scholarship.

Clayton Treska accepts ??
Clayton Treska, pictured third from left, was honored with the 2013-14 The Trustee Emeritus Ali C. Razi Award for Outstanding Achievement

While the Ironman World Championship may be a distant memory for Treska, the salty Hawaiian air and warm tropical sun that accompany competitors on the race to that coveted finish line are palpable for McElvenny. After all, he finished the same Ironman race, widely regarded as the world’s most challenging one-day sports event, just last month — less than two years after losing his right leg during combat operations in Afghanistan.

Eric Mcelvenny crossing the finish line
Eric McElvenny finishes the Ironman Triathalon
Photo courtesy of REFUEL got chocolate milk?/Larry Rosa

“I never did endurance sports before, but after I was injured I thought, man, I need to find something big,” McElvenny said. “I was still in the hospital as an inpatient when I decided to set my goal on running the Ironman. It was a long-term goal, I definitely didn’t expect to do it in under two years, but opportunities presented themselves and I jumped on them."

McElvenny’s amputation marked a turning point from military to civilian life, but the transition required more than physical rehabilitation. A drastic career move was also in the works, and by the time his retirement was settled in April 2013, he was settling in at SDSU.

Troops to Engineers

A Naval Academy graduate and Purple Heart recipient, McElvenny has found a new sense of purpose in his role as assistant director for SDSU’s Troops to Engineers program, where he mentors student veterans and coordinates paid internship and job placements.

“It was the hardest thing coming out of the military, knowing I could find a job and make money, but not feeling that pride or that purpose,” McElvenny said. “Coming here and working with veterans has helped fill that need for me."

Finding place and purpose is a common struggle for veterans, who often choose to continue their education after fulfilling their military service. Because of their strong technical background and skills, McElvenny said many have found their niche as engineering majors. Currently, 145 student veterans are also participating in Troops to Engineers, the only program of its kind in the nation, according to McElvenny, and an important one at that.

“A lot of these veterans have homes and families to support, and they’re a little older than the average student,” he said. “They have a passion for this work, and when they get these awesome opportunities through Troops to Engineers, they go in and kick butt.”

McElvenny will be a student himself soon, entering SDSU’s Master of Business Administration program next fall and setting out to accomplish yet another in a series of extraordinary goals.

A Tribute to Fallen Aztecs

Treska and McElvenny were fortunate enough to return home after multiple deployments and see their dreams come to fruition, but many veterans’ lives are cut short in the line of duty.

A War Memorial Vigil held on Thursday, Oct. 24 and the 17th Annual Wreath Laying Ceremony held the following day paid tribute to the 234 SDSU students whose names are etched into the campus monument’s granite façade for sacrificing their lives during U.S. military conflicts.

SDSU Student Veteran Organization President Paul Contreras addressed attendees at the Wreath Laying Ceremony.

“In the military, we use the phrase ‘lost but not forgotten,’” Contreras said. “Today is a day that we can actually live those words. Of more than 3,500 students that served, 230 paid the ultimate sacrifice. Those that returned recognized that these sacrifices, in part, allowed them to get their degrees. We’ve awarded medals to many soldiers, added their names to monuments, and named buildings for them to honor them for their bravery. But nothing can ever replace the hole left behind by a fallen service member.”

The ceremony is the first of several events scheduled this month celebrating veterans and raising awareness about military issues.