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MSW student aims to help military veterans and their families

Cathy Nguyen was well into her college career and studying psychology when she first realized that a member of her own family had most likely struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder. The discovery eventually fueled Nguyen’s interest in social work and focus on military veterans and their families.

“At the time, I was an undergrad at UC San Diego, and I remember I was learning so much and seeing all kinds of things that reminded me of my grandfather,” recalled Nguyen, a final year student in the School of Social Work’s full-time MSW program and a Springle Scholar. “Like how he never sat with his back to the door. Never. He always needed an exit. And how he couldn’t handle crowds or loud noises. I eventually realized that he was displaying very classic PTSD symptoms. But back then, my family didn’t know what to do with any of that. We didn’t even have the language to talk about it. We always just said, ‘Well, he’s just an old grump.’”

Growing up, Nguyen had heard only bits and pieces about her grandfather’s military service in North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Most of the stories were passed down from her parents and a few other relatives; her grandfather died before she was old enough to ask him about his experiences.

Nevertheless, over the years, Nguyen coupled those few stories together with what she and other students were learning in school. Eventually, the Vietnam War’s impact on soldiers and families from both sides of the line became much more clear, she said.

“I know that Vietnam veterans coming back to the United States did not get the reception that they would have liked or hoped for after going through this terrible war,” explained Nguyen, who immigrated with her parents from Vietnam to California in 1990. “Hearing my own family’s experiences, it was very similar on the Vietnamese side. There were a lot of moral injuries that occurred and Vietnamese soldiers not understanding who the enemies were and why they had been fighting for so long.”

The more Nguyen learned about the physical and mental trauma that soldiers and veterans experienced then and continue to experience today, the more she wanted to help them. With a psych degree in hand, she landed a job at a VA hospital in San Diego and immediately began working closely with a broad range of military service members, including those who served during World War II.

At the same time, Nguyen discovered that many of her colleagues who were therapists had graduated with social work degrees. Although she’d been considering an advanced degree in psychology, Nguyen felt drawn to social work and its holistic model.

“I really liked that when the social workers interacted with the veterans, they were less focused on the diagnosis they came in with and more focused on the here and now and listening to them and learning about their history and what got them to that point,” she said. “Of course, there is a lot of overlap. But in psychology, the care is based more on what an individual’s symptoms are and you address the symptoms rather than the whole person. I wanted to help the whole person.”

Nguyen applied to schools all over the country but accepted UNC’s offer, in part, for the challenge of moving from one coast to the other and for the opportunity to live outside of California for the first time. With graduation in sight, Nguyen knows she made the right decision. Over the past two years, she’s worked as an intern with the Durham VA Medical Center’s OEF/OIF/OND team, which serves combat veterans primarily returning from active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In her role, Nguyen processes the initial intakes—assessing patients for signs of depression, PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, or sexual trauma. She then helps to coordinate the comprehensive physical and mental health care they need.

“This year, I really realized just how much different our (more current) wars have been compared to previous wars,” she said. “Today, it’s not uncommon to have three to eight deployments, and these guys are only between the ages of 18 to 25, so you’re talking about much of their lives. And the amount of violence that occurs, especially the unexpected nature of the violence—the rockets and the mortars. These are injuries that they’re sustaining that they’re not really prepared for. So the risk is much higher, and they’re coming back with many more injuries, but they’re surviving them. The repercussions and consequences of those injuries sustained is what the VA has to work with, and it’s a lot.”

Her work with the VA also has taught her about the emotional toll of war. In San Diego, Nguyen occasionally encountered hostility from Vietnam vets, who lashed out at her ethnicity. With those experiences in mind, Nguyen asked for permission her first year at the Durham VA to speak to members of the support group for Vietnam veterans. She hoped sharing some of her family’s history and her interest in working with military vets and their families might ease any potential tension.

“The experience was just so wonderful,” she said. “I got a reaction from them that I didn’t think I would ever get. After talking about my family and my grandfather, many of the members said they were so impressed that a young person like me of Vietnamese heritage would be interested in them, especially nowadays, when they feel like they’re kind of forgotten. That made me so grateful that I’ve joined this field.”

Nguyen is equally thankful for the financial assistance she received this year as a recipient of the Charles Keith Springle Scholarship. The scholarship was established to honor Springle—a 1984 School of Social Work graduate who was shot and killed in service in 2009 by a soldier who had been receiving psychological counseling at a clinic in Baghdad where Springle worked.

“I feel really blessed because this scholarship is from a military family who wants to help people who are interested in working with veterans,” she said. “That somebody noticed that I’m really interested in this population and that I’ve put in a lot of work to help them, I’m really grateful because I don’t think I could have done just what I’ve done this year without their help. They have helped me make my goals in social work possible.”

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