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Veteran, Tornado Survivor, and Underdog: An Essay

Veteran Timothy Limekman’s house after a tornado hit Joplin, MO in 2011. Then, after he had surgery in 2015.

Timothy Limkeman has endured his fair share of hardships. After two years in Baghdad, he came back stateside only to lose his job due to PTSD and sleep apnea. Then, he lost everything he owned in a destructive tornado. But he didn’t let it tear him down, too. 

After he lost his home, Limkeman worked as an Americorps volunteer to help rebuild homes for people who’d lost theirs as well. Today, he teaches special needs students and is pursuing an educational technology certification at Pittsburg State University

Limkeman’s moving essay made him a finalist for the fall Veteran Recognition Scholarship. Read his story below. 


Veteran, Tornado Survivor, and Underdog: An Essay by Timothy Limkeman 

I started working with special education students about three years ago. At first I worked as a substitute teacher for a few months, and then the lead teacher in the special education classroom of the intermediate school asked if I would fill an open, full-time position in her classroom as a paraprofessional — that is, a teacher’s assistant. I applied and was hired. I had never considered doing this type of work before, but have always been a big advocate of the underdog. Maybe because I see myself in the same way as I see these students; that is, as an underdog.

The work with the students involved shadowing a sixth grade special needs boy into his general education classes and working one-on-one with him. After realizing how good of a fit this was for me, listening to the responses of the parents and teachers, and listening to the students confide in me with their troubles, I decided to pursue an education that would allow me to work with, support and encourage K-12 students. I believe one of the more satisfying moments came when the 12-year-old student told me, “I really feel confident about doing my assignment today.”  This comment came after working with him for a whole semester. It was great to finally see him “turn a corner” after having been through so much confusion and neglect in his life. Since I had started working with him, the message I had consistently heard was “I can’t do this.” But on that day, he knew he could.

On August 18, 2019, I had just started the courses for my educational technology certification. I had decided to look for a job that would allow me to work with these students as a blended instructor. The amount of time for using my post 9/11 GI Bill educational benefits was set to expire on August 24, 2019. I put in my request to the VA to have the expiration date extended for one year, so that the 11 months of benefits I had earned while in Baghdad could be used to pay my tuition, but the requests were denied twice because the hardships that prevented me from finishing my education in the allowed time frame did not fall into the required categories of physical or mental disabilities. I applied for the Edith Nourse Rogers STEM scholarship, but did not qualify for it. So, I find myself in a position of having already started the certification courses and not having a means to finance the tuition.

In March 2003, Operation Iraqi Freedom broke out just after I had moved to Joplin, MO to take a job working in a library. About eight months after our move, my Army National Guard unit deployed to Baghdad. We spent 14 months in the dessert, and this included two summers. I had never even been to the desert before, not even for training. The heat  is so intense in the long summers that it feels like the sun is sucking the energy out of you. Like one soldier wrote home, “It’s like someone is blowing a hair dryer in your face while throwing sand in front of it.”  

Limkeman’s first home in Joplin, MO.

When I returned I realized that it is just as tough coming back to life at home as it is getting adjusted to a combat zone in the desert. To make things more complex, I slowly became aware that something wasn’t right. Since I had never really had any debilitating sickness before, I was not quick to act on the symptoms of PTSD and severe obstructive sleep apnea. I lost my job at the library during this time.

The tornado that hit Joplin, MO on May 22, 2011 took everything we owned—house, contents and two cars. Everything, that is, but our lives.  Our home was in the direct path of the sixth-worst tornado in U.S. history. When it came sauntering through the south part of the city at 15 mph with a cyclonic force of over 200 mph, it took everything in its path. Almost nothing was left standing in a 12-block wide path that stretched across the whole city. Nothing was recognizable. After I was able to get on top of the rubble and look around, the first thing I told my wife with a quiver in my voice was, “I haven’t seen anything like this, not even when we went into Baghdad right after the bombing.” After pushing the rubble off the top of us—we were on the main level in a closet of our home at the time—we were so glad to find out we only had scratches.

After the tornado.

We lived with two different families before we were able to find a duplex to rent. After moving into the duplex, we began to plan and construct our next house. I decided to direct the project, but as it turned out, I had to do about 60% of the labor, too. There were many obstacles to overcome. There was the resistance of the insurance company to pay, trying to get contractors to come back and finish their work, and crews that simply left town.

During this time, I had two surgeries that prevented me from working on the house for a total of about 16 weeks, and my wife found out she had third stage kidney failure. But after spending more than two years building the house, we finally moved into it in 2016.

I like what my volunteer consultant told me. He said, “Just keep working and don’t look back.”  This is the same advice I share with my students. There are going to be a lot of hardships and obstacles that come your way, but just stay steady and keep your eyes fixed on your goals. I can look back on what I have personally been through and know that the same view will take me through any future obstacles. I am able to share this with my students, and this inspires all of us. is proud to share this essay from Timothy Limkeman and stories like his. For more, read the essay that won our fall scholarship here.


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