My Dissertation Topics: Pain/Pain Management, Navy SEALs/UDT Veterans, and Aging.

My goal with my dissertation is to deep dive into how we treat/manage pain for aging SEAL and UDT veterans following injuries they developed as part of training and deployment. This is a retrospective study, meaning that it is a look back in time to statistics and data about veterans who took part in the Korean and Vietnam Wars; however, I also hope to speak with lots of current and more recently separated SEALs to get a good look at how things are now and compare the data.

Since the very first assignment in my PhD program on August 30, I’ve been researching and writing only about aging Navy SEAL and Underwater Demolition Team (UDT) veterans with pain. That’s it. That’s all I do. This immersion into my research topics is allowing me to slowly become an academic expert on Navy SEALs with pain, as well as an expert in related topics, like injury rates, injury prevention, pain management, surgical management of injuries, fitness as a means of pain prevention, etc. I am acquiring an academic expertise, but I want to also become educated on the human, actionable side, too, so that I can apply the academic stuff to improve the training, pain mitigation, pain management, and longterm health outcomes of Navy SEALs.

Everything a PhD student does, starting on Day 1, is supposed to be focused solely on the student’s dissertation topic and population of interest. My PhD advisor, an aging, pain, and veteran health care expert herself, is extremely supportive of my areas of interest and we are slowly turning over ideas for my actual thesis question. The populations will likely stay the same (aging Navy SEAL and UDT veterans), but the approach to discussing their pain and the implications for future research and treatment may change.

At the outset, I wasn’t sure if I would find much research about Navy SEALs in the public domain, but once I got going, the research has come slowly but steadily. I already have upwards of 20 peer-reviewed (research) sources about pain and injuries in current and former SEALs, and I have many other sources saved that I’ve yet to comb through, including books and longer articles. I also discovered that the Census Bureau and the VA provide a lot of public data on their websites; finding the sources requires a super deep dive, but the information is there.

It’s pretty amazing to find all of this scholarship on my topic areas of interest, yet none of this scholarship addresses exactly what I want to address – which is the point of my PhD. My dissertation will be my personal contribution to research on a topic that hasn’t been addressed or studied. That’s the purpose of any PhD dissertation, and why it takes at least 4 years to put together.

Beyond just paperwork and research, I am committed to getting into the field and understanding the potential causes of pain and injury and how those things can be better managed. I had the opportunity to observe a special forces tactical training expert, Matt Wenning, last week. Seeing what he does in person and learning the why’s and how’s was extremely helpful and like receiving all the answers to an exam. Matt specializes in injury and pain prevention and mitigation, so the experience of learning from him was extremely helpful.

I want to continue observing and speaking to other subject matter experts, too. Matt isn’t a SEAL, but there are a handful of SEAL veterans out there training the next generation, like Jeff Nichols, Stew Smith, Mark Divine, Brad McLoud, SOF Prep Academy, and sooo many others. There are also many SEAL/UDT veterans who do public speaking and other kinds of public work, who I hope will speak with me, too. If you are interested in knowing more about any of the people I listed, I follow most of them on Instagram (see the right sidebar on this page for my IG account!) 🙂 The biggest hurdle for me, I think, is to show that I am worthy of their time and trust so that they will speak with me. The SEAL community is closed to outsiders, and although I am a Navy spouse, I am a total outsider, especially because I am a scientist and researcher. Being a woman does not help me gain entry into the boys club, either 😉

For me, this is so much more than just a dissertation – this is the entrance into the rest of my career. Yes, I hope to be a nursing educator, but the real draw for me is gaining an academic appointment so that I can focus my time on improving the care we give to veterans and active duty service members. I know that the tactical aviation community has its share of aches and pains associated with their work, but it would be a huge ethical issue for me to perform research on the military aviation community as a spouse of one of their own. So, I had to pivot and find another group … and this is the one that made sense because they could benefit so much from increased care. The wear and tear on their bodies is incredible, much more so than any other Naval service members, and the cost of their care later in life is astronomical. So, why not be a part of the positive change of helping these men live better, more well lives while they are still young and able to enjoy a life that is relatively pain-free.

I also feel that the healthcare of veterans is my calling because, as a spouse, I know how to dance my way around red tape and how to figure out who is actually in charge/who I need to speak with. It’s SUCH a stereotype that all of us spouses are pushy and always want to speak with the manager (damnit, Karen!), but the last 8 years of my relationship with my husband have prepared me to take on the military healthcare apparatus and find ways to make lasting changes for the better. Plus, I was a civilian worker bee for the Navy for a time, so I know how the machinations of the military work and how to climb to the top. I’m not afraid of putting my research on the desk of anyone and everyone, I know how to get it there, and I’m a dedicated sales person and advocate when I see an opening to go to work. This is my calling, and this is my life’s work.

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