Back in 2006, Ed Woodward was living his dream, training to be an Air Force fighter pilot.
A half-dozen years later, he's living another dream: aspiring doctor with plans of serving veterans like himself who have suffered a traumatic brain injury.
Today, the University of South Florida in Tampa dedicates its new Veterans Achievement Center, a 3,000-square-foot space where students with unique perspectives and challenges can meet and study.
Woodward, who will be at the ceremony, hopes his story will inspire other veterans making the transition from the military to the classroom.
"I'd also tell them, reaching out for help doesn't mean you're weak," he said. In college, he's found, seeking guidance is not only encouraged, it's expected. "It can set you off in a direction you can be just as proud of.
"Now my education is a beacon of hope in my life, helping me go in a positive direction."
Woodward was training in Oregon in 2006, just five flights away from being able to pilot an F-15 on military missions.
Then one day, the 31-year-old developed a terrible headache, the worst pain he had ever experienced. Yet he ignored it.
"I knew I would be grounded,'' he said. "They take you out of the plane the minute they know anything is wrong."
A couple of days later, he was riding in a car when he had a seizure and lost consciousness. Doctors discovered that Woodward had a blood clot in his brain and was bleeding from another tiny cerebral blood vessel. They told him several factors had probably contributed to the stroke.
They diagnosed a blood clotting disorder that Woodward had never known about. Plus, the g-forces he endured in a high-speed training flight were powerful enough to disturb normal blood flow in the brain, doctors said.
That conclusion is still being debated; the outcome will determine which Veterans Affairs benefits he receives.
Woodward wanted to return to flying. But even a year later, he just wasn't as quick mentally. He couldn't summon up words that once had come easily to him. Migraine headaches were severe and frequent.
Woodward reluctantly retired from the military in 2008 and returned to his native St. Petersburg, hoping to find a job.
Woodward spoke to a relative, who advised him to "go finish what your younger brother started."
Woodward and his twin brother, Gene, younger by 40 minutes, were out celebrating the conclusion of Gene's first year of medical school at the University of South Florida in early June 2000. Their car was hit by a drunk driver on Interstate 275, killing Gene.
Woodward liked the idea of medical school but knew he'd need preparation. He won a Tillman Foundation Scholarship and started a master's degree program in medical sciences in January. He plans to apply to USF Health's Morsani College of Medicine next year.
Woodward, now 37, is married and has a 5-year-old son. He still works to overcome the lingering effects of the stroke, including occasional severe headaches.
Woodward sees the new center as "a place where we can network and support each other and maybe help each other with our classes.''
Larry Braue, director of the Office of Veterans Services at USF, said that a returning veteran starting college often has a tough time relating to students fresh out of high school.
Veterans "really needed a place to go and just talk, hang out and share experiences, struggles and strategies for dealing with campus life and classes," he said.
Charitable donations helped outfit the center with new furniture, a wide-screen TV, a computer lab, a conference room, a quiet study room and a dining area. The walls feature murals depicting historic uniforms from all branches of the military.
USF's 1,700 veteran scholars range in age from 23 to almost 60.
At the new center, "you'll be able to see how guys with injuries have overcome their deficits,'' Woodward said. "I will be able to let them know how I overcame difficulties from a traumatic brain injury.
"I may be able to help other guys find direction.''
Contact Irene Maher at [email protected]