DALLAS — Eric Enderle was the kid who played GI Joe in his backyard growing up.
The Dallas resident graduated from Salem Academy, and looked for the first opportunity to sign up to serve his country at 18 years old in 2003.
“I went in to talk to the Marine Corps, and they weren’t open. The Army was,” Enderle said.
He signed up to be an U.S. Army infantryman, one of the soldiers that “kicked in people’s doors in the middle of the night,” because he wanted to be close to the action.
Enderle, 32, served in Iraq, doing nighttime raids and IED sweeps. He loved the job, and still doesn’t have adequate words to describe it.
“That was always my dream. When I was in Iraq, it’s very powerful,” Enderle said. “I was in charge of 300 people, and the next thing you know, I’m waking up in a hospital.”
Enderle was injured by an IED. The blast broke his back and arm; lacerated his liver, kidney, and spleen; punctured his lung; and gave him a brain injury.
“There’s a shorter list of what didn’t get messed up,” he said.
That was the end of his night raids, though he was convinced he would recover enough to continue to do his job.
“I was in Walter Reed for 60 or 70 days. I went back to my unit and tried to convince them I could heal up a little bit more and get back at it,” he said. “They humored me to some extent, ‘oh give him a little time to come to terms with it.’”
He did when a doctor told him that, in some ways, he wouldn’t get better. He medically retired in June 2007.
“You went from living your dream to what am I going to do now?” Enderle said.
When he retired, he was handed a card that told him he could sign up for Veteran Affairs benefits online, which he did for his education. He wanted to use the VA’s vocational rehabilitation program, which meant he had to prove his injury was service-related.
He submitted the application and then he waited. And waited.
“It has been like 14 or 16 months,” he said.
A friend of Enderle’s mother, who works for the VA, suggested he schedule an appointment with the veteran services officer in Salem.
“Turns out my claim basically went into VA purgatory. It was literally just sitting there. Nothing had happened,” he said. “A week later I had my exams and three weeks later, I was getting paid and starting the process of going to school.”
That gave him valuable experience for his new position as Polk County VSO. He had been filling in since March, and took the job permanently on Aug. 8.
“I’ve been on the other side of the table thinking, what is the VA doing, how does this work?” he said. “It’s its own beast because it’s literally one word that makes the difference between something being taken care of and it not.”
He previously served in a similar role for the American Legion in Portland and is thankful for the opportunity to do the same work in his hometown — and with more immediate impact.
“If a vet comes in and says I need help with somewhere to stay, up in Portland there were resources, but they were usually strained. There wasn’t much you could do,” Enderle said. “Here, there are a lot of different avenues we can go through and get things the same day, same week. That was kind of a big thing to me.”
Enderle said he’s still getting to know his new role, but is eager to answer any requests for help.
“If you have a veteran-related question, ask us,” he said. “We may not be able to have the answer, or be able to fix whatever is wrong, but we will get a hold of the right people to get that question answered.”
The Veteran Service Office is located at 240 Washington St., Dallas. 503-623-9188.