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Adversity inspires student-veteran to improve access to healthcare

Northeastern student Brian Walker, who served in the U.S. Navy for eight years, is one of 10 veterans nationwide to receive a 2018 VFW-SVA Legislative Fellowship. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Brian Walker served in the U.S. Navy for eight years. But after his honorable discharge in 2007, he faced adversity—from struggling with reintegrating into society to losing his job in 2009 during the Great Recession.

Like many veterans, Walker grappled with transitioning back to civilian life. He was diagnosed with depression and anxiety during his service, and it took him five years to finally receive the care he needed.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat it. It hasn’t been easy,” he said. “I give a lot of credit to my wife, family, and friends who have supported me. I’m a much stronger person now.”

Walker, a graduate student at Northeastern in the Master of Public Policy program, said his own experiences have inspired him to advocate for policy changes that expand veterans’ access to healthcare and reduce stigma around mental health issues. “It’s something near and dear to my heart,” he said.

Now, Walker is one of 10 veterans nationwide to receive a 2018 VFW-SVA Legislative Fellowship, a program run in partnership between the VFW and the Student Veterans of America. Through this semesterlong experience, he’ll conduct research, meet with legislators in Washington, and execute an action plan that includes sharing his research paper with the Massachusetts congressional delegation.

“[This fellowship] means so much to me,” said Walker, MPP’18. “This is an opportunity that I don’t want to take for granted.”

During his time in Washington in March, Walker will be paired with a VFW mentor and meet with the state’s congressional leaders on Capitol Hill. He’ll also receive briefings on policy initiatives and learn techniques on working with the media to advocate for veterans’ issues. Then in April, he’ll submit his final community action plans to the state’s congressional delegation.

Highlighting a particular need in healthcare

Walker underscored the particular need to help veterans discharged with less-than-honorable status, because they’re not eligible for certain VA healthcare services. He said these veterans are arguably the most vulnerable, and that increasing expanded VA mental health access to all veterans—regardless of discharge status—is critical to decreasing the suicide rate among veterans.

In 2014, an average of 20 veterans across generations died by suicide every day, and only 40 percent were users of Veterans Health Administration services in 2013 and 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Walker noted that the VHA has made improvements to healthcare implementation, particularly within mental health. These include offering urgent mental healthcare for veterans with less-than-honorable status and expanding telehealth services for all veterans.

Kindling a passion

 Walker is a fourth-generation veteran of the U.S. Navy. He served as a logistics specialist from 1999 to 2007, and he was aboard the U.S.S. Sacramento—during the first of his two deployments—on Sept. 11.

Upon completing his service, Walker earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology from the State University of New York at New Paltz. He later moved to Boston, and his interest in studying the impact of mental health stigma and veterans’ reintegration issues was kindled while working at the Boston VA Medical Center as a research technician and veterans employment assistant volunteer. He even co-authored a research paper that examined how veterans’ deployment experiences change over time, specifically comparing the stressors they experience across different wars and by gender.

His research interest grew after enrolling at Northeastern, where he’s focusing his master’s program in healthcare and health policy. His fellowship topic stems from his work in a “Strategizing Public Policy” course, in which he dug deeper to identify public policy gaps and examined the issue of suicide rates and stigma associated with veterans.

Walker is also a member of Northeastern’s VFW post, which the university established in November 2016 as the first post to be opened in Massachusetts since 2009 and just the second in the nation to be run by student veterans on a college campus.

‘A voice for change to ensure others won’t be left behind’

Linda Kowalcky, professor of the practice in Northeastern’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, taught “Strategizing Public Policy,” and suggested Walker apply for the fellowship. When she sat down with Walker to discuss the policy topic he’d focus on in class, it was clear he had already given it much thought, she said.

Kowalcky, who is advising him through his fellowship, said, “He did terrific work. He’s a good writer and did very thorough research, and he was creative in how he thought about some of the political strategies to advance this.”

After graduation in May, Walker wants to put his experience to work in healthcare policy or veterans health advocacy, and he’s staying opened minded about what opportunities may present themselves.

“You don’t leave soldiers behind on the battlefield, and there are people who have not left me behind,” he said. “That’s fueled my passion to try to be a voice for change to ensure others won’t be left behind either.”

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