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CMSRU student veterans provide outreach and support to "brothers and sisters in arms"

This foundational value within the ranks of the military assures service members that the men and women serving beside them are loyal compatriots who will support them no matter the consequences. This principle doesn’t usually disappear when military service is completed. In fact, most veterans continue to live by the tenet that helping their “brothers and sisters in arms” is not only a responsibility but a privilege.

It certainly didn’t end for nearly a dozen veterans who switched their military uniforms for white doctor-in-training jackets when they enrolled as medical students at Cooper Medical School of Rowan University (CMSRU). In fact, the resolve of CMSRU’s current and former military service members to help their fellow veterans was so strong they created Veterans Outreach and Interest, CMSRU Element (VOICE), a service-learning program that provides outreach to homeless veterans in Camden, New Jersey, and educates civilian medical students about the medical needs of this unique population.

Brian McCauley, a member of CMSRU’s first graduating class and an Air Force veteran, conceived of a program to assist veterans, which laid the groundwork for VOICE. Today, nearly 20 medical students are part of VOICE, and the majority of them are U.S. military veterans or active duty. Others are committed to learning how to best work with veterans.

“I feel great deal of responsibility for helping take care of veterans, having also served this country,” explained Bobby Zhang, a third-year medical student at CMSRU and co-founder of VOICE. Zhang, a graduate of West Point and member of the U.S. Army who served in Afghanistan, also finds the work fulfilling. “We were taught in the military to take care of our own. Being able to help our fellow veterans, especially those in need, is very rewarding.”

Educating and making connections at Home For The Brave

Every other Monday, about six VOICE members visit Volunteers of America’s Home for the Brave, a 30-bed housing program for homeless veterans in Camden. Veterans can reside at the shelter for up to 18 months, during which time trained staff work to help them get back on their feet.

Joyce Miller, the caseworker at Home for the Brave, says the biweekly VOICE programs are a highlight for many veterans at the center. “Since most of our vets are between 48 and 70 years old, the health information is very helpful for them,” she explained. “Plus, the students are really able to connect with the vets. They provide encouragement, and the men look forward to their visits.”  

During their sessions at the shelter, the CMSRU students provide brief educational talks on pre-selected health topics – like diabetes, high blood pressure or heart disease – and conduct blood pressure and glucose screenings. One-on-one contact during the screenings opens the door for more personal conversations and helps foster important connections between the students and the veterans who are dealing with life circumstances that have resulted in homelessness.

“We ask them when and where they served, in which unit, and they ask us the same. It helps the conversation get started,” said CMSRU student Kathryn Fenton, a former Navy nurse and co-founder of VOICE. “We let them lead the conversation as we to try to make connections, with the hope of helping however we can. Because we speak the same language, they seem to trust us.”

Understanding the unique medical needs of veterans

One of the missions of VOICE is to promote the understanding of veterans’ health needs among the healthcare community. The CMSRU student veterans accomplish this by encouraging their classmates to join VOICE and to participate in the educational sessions offered throughout the year.

“Our goal is to bridge the gap between the civilian and military counterparts by educating them about issues that are more prevalent among military veterans, like occupational exposures or blast injuries, hearing problems and chemical exposures,” said Fenton. “And with the high suicide rate of veterans, mental health is an important topic for healthcare providers to understand.”

Since its inception in 2016, VOICE has hosted veterans’ panel discussions on a variety of health-related topics and created a display of military boots and military identification tags (“dog tags”) to symbolize the number of veterans who die each day from suicide.

According to Zhang, his classmates at CMSRU have eagerly embraced VOICE and recognize the value the program adds to their overall medical education. “We've had events where civilian classmates come up to us afterwards and tell us that they learned a lot about veterans and how to talk to veterans and how to better treat veterans. That’s extremely rewarding. It gives them more tools from the toolbox, so to speak, of being able to relate with people, and that’s a good thing.”

Service learning – with programs like VOICE – is a hallmark of the CMSRU curriculum and the heart of CMSRU’s pledge to give back to the community while developing highly skilled, socially conscious physician leaders who value a patient-centered team approach to health care. CMSRU requires a minimum of 40 hours of nonmedical service per year in the Camden community as part of the curriculum, but most students surpass that. Students work with established community programs or develop grassroots service-learning initiatives, like CMSRU Street Medicine, which works with homeless people in Camden.

During the 2017-18 academic year, CMSRU’s approximate 300 students completed more than 16,000 hours of service to the Camden community.