Wounded Iraq War veteran sees doors open through degree
MENOMONIE, Wis. — Ryan Fellenz firmly believes that when one door closes, another always opens.
Fellenz, 33, graduates from UW-Stout Saturday with a bachelor’s degree in supply chain management. A retired sergeant with the Wisconsin Army National Guard, he was wounded May 19, 2007, by a roadside bomb while driving a truck south of Taji, Iraq, about 20 miles south of Baghdad.
Fellenz’s right leg was amputated 6 inches below the knee, and he now uses a prosthetic leg. The bomb blast also caused stress fractures in Fellenz’s left leg and burns.
In the wake of his wounds, Fellenz was awarded the Purple Heart, given to U.S. military members injured or killed in war.
Despite those wounds, Fellenz has moved on with his life, determined to graduate from UW-Stout and provide for his family, which includes his wife, Melissa, and the couple’s two daughters, Abby, 3, and Annie, 1.
On Saturday, six years after he and more than three years after enrolling at UW-Stout, Fellenz will realize his goal of graduation. Getting there wasn’t easy given the rough road he has faced overcoming his wounds, which still cause him daily pain.
“It’s been quite a ride the last six years,” Fellenz, of Lake Hallie, said. “There have been a lot of ups and downs.”
Despite some bumps in the road, Fellenz remained determined to graduate.
“I made my own fast track,” he said. “I took 18 credits a semester. I took courses in the summer and during winter term. Especially with a family, I needed to get it done. My mindset was to treat it like a job.”
Fellenz entered the National Guard after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and was deployed to Iraq in June 2006. After the bomb blast he spent 2½ years in San Antonio rehabilitating from his wounds. He originally planned to make a career of the military, but after his wounds he decided that vocation would be too stressful on his body.
Fellenz discovered he enjoys supply chain management because it is specific yet broad enough to allow him to work in all facets of a company. The Eau Claire North High School graduate was hired to work full time at Cascades Tissue Group in Eau Claire in August and is working as a supervisor-in-training, doing the planning and scheduling for the company’s maintenance department. He said he hopes to work in Cascades management some day.
Gene Gutman, a UW-Stout professor and the director of the supply chain management degree program, called Fellenz a success story, saying Fellenz has evolved substantially during his time at UW-Stout.
“He is going to do real well,” Gutman said. “He has really good people skills. He’s smart. He’s got a lot of common sense.”
Despite the physical and mental anguish his wounds have caused him, Fellenz is thankful, in a way, that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time when the bomb blast hit him six years ago.
Without that, without his having been sent to San Antonio to undergo grueling rehabilitation. Fellenz probably wouldn’t have met Melissa, whom he first saw at a birthday party there. He probably wouldn’t be father to two daughters.
“It’s not going to slow me down,” he said of his wounds. “I’m not going to let it. My family is real important to me. Providing for my family is the No. 1 goal in my life.”
As Fellenz sits inside the UW-Stout Johnson Fieldhouse Saturday with other graduates and their families, he will reflect on his accomplishment and all he has overcome to receive his diploma.
“I don’t like starting things I can’t finish,” he said. “There is definitely a feeling of accomplishment. I think I’ve had a good ride the last six years. I thank everyone who helped me along the way. Now let’s go to the next door and see what the next 10 years have to offer.”