Engineering major leads Student Veterans Association, looks toward career in prosthetics

Heath McClung and classmates

U.S. Army veteran Heath McClung (at left), who was hit by an explosion during his 2011 deployment to Afghanistan, studies alongside fellow UMSL engineering majors Mitchell Haskin and Paul Crosby in UMSL’s Veterans Center. (Photos by August Jennewein)

Heath McClung has fond memories of walking onto the University of Missouri–St. Louis campus one day last fall and stunning his classmates and professors.

“They were very excited when I came in midway through the semester and all of a sudden I was wearing a prosthetic and walking around,” says the junior mechanical engineering major and U.S. Army veteran, who had previously attended class in a wheelchair. After being injured in Afghanistan in 2011 and enduring three years of rehabilitation and a dozen surgeries in attempts to salvage his left leg, McClung underwent an amputation shortly before enrolling at UMSL.

But walking was just the first item McClung checked off his list upon getting his prosthesis a year ago.

UMSL student veteran Heath McClung

In 2014, just two and a half weeks after undergoing an amputation of his left leg, Heath McClung was digging into coursework at UMSL. The U.S. Army veteran is president of UMSL’s Student Veterans Association and will speak as part of a Veterans Day panel Wednesday in the Millennium Student Center.

“There are still goals I’m trying to achieve,” says the St. Louis native. “I can run, but I was a very good runner before, so I’m trying to get back to being a good runner. And then I’ve tried snowboarding, and I also ride a recumbent bicycle. But a goal is to get back up on a normal bike, because I’d love to be able to commute, since I live near a MetroLink station.”

Enrolled in the UMSL/Washington University Joint Engineering Program, McClung is president of UMSL’s Student Veterans Association and also works part-time in the Veterans Center in Clark Hall. In those roles, he enjoys connecting with other student veterans and helping them work through their own challenges.

“I lived in a Veterans Affairs hospital for 13 months, so I met veterans from all different wars, and I saw how some generations have been neglected,” McClung says. “And there’s kind of a misunderstanding amongst the general population towards veterans sometimes, so I really just wanted to be someone that can bridge the gaps.”

He’s also proved a source of inspiration, for service members and civilians alike.

“It’s easy to identify my disabilities – everyone can see that I’m missing a leg,” McClung says. “I have people come up to me all the time and say, ‘I’ve never actually met a wounded warrior before, but you’re so inspiring.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m just a guy who’s trying to live his life and deal with the cards that were dealt.’ So I guess that’s my biggest thing: I just want to be a positive role model and be personable enough that people can approach me and say, ‘Hey, how did you deal with this?’ or ‘I’m struggling with this.'”

McClung is quick to note that student veterans “are just like any other student” in terms of why they’re on campus, though some of their experiences may differ. Partly to get that message across and to foster further understanding, he’s helped organize a Veterans Day event in the Millennium Student Center.

On Nov. 11, following the viewing of a 30-minute documentary in MSC 316 at noon, McClung and a handful of fellow UMSL veterans will lead a panel discussion.

“The idea is trying to break down any stereotypes or stigmas people might have when they think of ‘veteran,'” he says, “and then also if someone has a question they’ve always wanted to ask a veteran, I think we’ll be able to field those.”

Earlier this month, for the second year in a row, UMSL was named to both Victory Media’s 2016 Military Friendly® Schools list and Military Times’ Best for Vets: Colleges 2016 list.

McClung is one of 389 student veterans currently choosing UMSL, and he says many of them resonate with the idea that service to country doesn’t end with the military. With that in mind, a focus of the Student Veterans Association is lending a hand in the community.

“I know that a lot of the people in SVA are excited about that, and then we’re also trying to pair with a lot of the other student service organizations that are interested in doing service projects,” McClung says.

Eventually, the former infantryman hopes to get into the field of prosthetics. He plans on doing a two-year master’s program after UMSL in order to become a licensed prosthetist.

“I think it’s fascinating technology and really rewarding,” McClung says. “These are things that help people in their daily lives. Ideally I want to work either in a practice and treat patients or work for a company helping to design and make the next generation of prosthetics.”

The UMSL Experience

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