Joe and Kelsey Toepke are a father-daughter duo attending Mizzou as freshmen on the GI Bill.

Growing up, Kelsey Toepke understood that having a dad in the military meant he would often miss her activities. But knowing why he was gone didn’t make his absence any easier.

Toepke still longed for her dad.

Today 18-year-old Kelsey is attending the University of Missouri on the GI Bill, thanks to her dad’s sacrifice. And this time, she gets to share the experience with him — in person. Joe Toepke, 48, a highly decorated former Army officer, also is attending Mizzou this fall on the GI Bill.

The father-daughter duo from Columbia are freshmen: Kelsey is majoring in international business while Joe is pursuing a degree in personal financial planning. It isn’t exactly what Kelsey had in mind when she envisioned life as a Tiger coed, but the pair is grateful to be sharing the college experience.

“Growing up, I always thought I would go to college, but as I got older, I started to wonder how I was going to pay for it,” Kelsey said. “Now, I have this opportunity at Mizzou.”

The Toepkes are among the nearly 900 MU students who are either veterans, active duty personnel, National Guard members, reservists, ROTC cadets or family members receiving GI Bill benefits. This week Mizzou is celebrating Veterans Week with a number of activities.

Joe joined the Army in 1992 as an enlisted soldier and later became a commissioned officer. He spent much of his 24 years in the military as a helicopter pilot and staff officer. He was deployed to the Middle East twice, once to Bosnia and ran the Missouri Emergency Operations Center for six states and national disasters.

But years of rough riding behind the wheel of a military helicopter took a serious toll on Joe’s physical condition. After injections and medical procedures to deaden the nerves in his back, Joe was medically retired in 2015. He was deemed 100% disabled by the Veterans Administration and became eligible for another GI Bill. Years earlier, he had transferred his first GI Bill benefits to his three daughters.

Toepke spent much of his 24 years in the Army as a helicopter pilot and staff officer. He retired in 2015.

A Missouri native from St. Charles, Joe already has an associate degree from St. Louis Community College and a bachelor’s degree in earth science and geology from the University of Central Missouri. But he earned those years ago and was anxious about going back to school as a non-traditional student. So he took several online courses over the summer and loved it.

This semester he and Kelsey are both carrying a full load of classes. Joe said it’s not unusual for his classmates and even some instructors to mistake him for a faculty member, like the time he arrived early and discovered a professor from a previous class struggling with the microphone.

“He came up to me and asked, ‘Are you the professor for the next class because if you are, the microphone isn’t working right,’” Joe recalled. “I said, ‘No, sir, I’m just a student.’”

Perplexed, the professor replied: “Oh.”

Father and daughter share a philanthropic spirit and hope to use their education to help others.

After hosting two foreign exchange students while in high school and having a Dad serving overseas, Kelsey said she became interested in other cultures. She isn’t sure where her degree in international business will take her, but she is eager to learn more about other cultures.

As for Joe, he hopes to use his degree to help others who are struggling with finances.

“It fits perfectly into my desire to help other people,” he said.

It’s not likely that father and daughter will end up in the same class, but Joe is looking forward to the day Kelsey meets one of his former classmates who realizes the connection.

“They’ll be like, “Hey, I had your dad in class, and he was pretty cool!’” Joe teased.

“Oh, Dad!”

Mizzou a top choice for veterans

MU was recently named by College Factual as one of the nation’s best universities for veterans. MU was recently designated a Purple Heart University in recognition of the university’s support of military members, including veterans and their families.

The MU Veterans Center, located in the basement of the Memorial Union, recently expanded to include space for student veterans to socialize, study and connect with resources as they transition from the military to academia. The MU Veterans Clinic, located in the MU School of Law, is staffed by law students and overseen by professional lawyers who specialize in navigating the VA benefits system for veterans. In August, the Mizzou Veterans Wellness Center opened inside the MU Veterans Clinic. The program is a partnership between the MU Veterans Clinic and the Harry S. Truman Memorial Veterans’ Hospital and is designed to make accessing health resources easier for student veterans, faculty, staff and their families.