Northeastern University’s Brian Walker served eight years in the U.S. Navy including two deployments in support of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But after his honorable discharge in 2007, Walker began experiencing reintegration and rehabilitation issues commonly faced by returning service members.
Now, Walker has been selected as one of 10 veterans nationwide to receive the VFW-SVA Legislative Fellowship, a semester-long academic experience involving research, action, reporting, and advocating on behalf of one of four policy areas: veterans’ success in higher education; transitioning from military to civilian life; succeeding in the civilian workforce; and crafting the future of veterans’ health care. Walker submitted a policy proposal to address the future of veterans’ health care through federal legislative action.
“The opportunity provides exceptional student veterans the chance to make their voices heard on Capitol Hill and with other organizations in the veterans’ advocacy space,” Jared Lyon, president and CEO of Student Veterans of America (SVA), said in a statement.
Addressing mental health stigma
In 2012, Walker started working as a research assistant at the VA Boston focusing on the impact of mental health stigma on reintegration and rehabilitation of returning veterans. This position coupled with his personal narrative led Walker on a quest for ways to expand mental health advocacy on behalf of veterans.
Four years later, he enrolled in Northeastern’s Master of Public Policy, a two-year program that prepares students to assess public problems, develop appropriate policy responses, and evaluate program impact.
“When I applied for the program I had a strong interest in veteran mental health advocacy because I know there are soldiers, airmen, sailors, marines that are in worse conditions than I am,” said Walker, a second-year student with a focus in health care policy.
At Northeastern, Walker began looking at gaps in policies that affect veterans. In a “Health Advocacy” course, Walker examined suicide prevention policies and the need to expand peer-to-peer specialist training. And he learned staggering statistics: only 30 percent of veterans nationwide who commit suicide are enrolled in the VA Health Care System, and only 26 percent of eligible veterans in Greater Boston used the VA system in 2013.
In a “Health Policy and Politics” course, Walker analyzed the need to expand mental health access to veterans with dishonorable discharge. He identified key stakeholders at the federal, legislative, local, and nonprofit levels, surveyed VA Boston staff and veterans, and spoke with multiple senators, representative aides and advocacy groups. The feedback from those interviews is the basis of a policy paper he wrote for the course, which he also submitted for the VFW-SVA Legislative Fellowship.
“It helped me paint this whole picture and take a hard look at mental health stigma, take a hard look at the VA,” Walker said of his work for the “Health Policy and Politics” course. “I’m having to step out of my personal narrative and look at this issue objectively.”
Advocating and assessing policy
When Walker learned he was selected to join more than 500 members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the U.S. (VFW) March 4-9, 2018, at Capitol Hill, he felt ecstatic. “It is a tremendous honor to be one of 10 veterans to be selected nationally,” Walker said. “I got a phone call around noon on Nov. 29 (2017), literally on my birthday, and it was incredible.”
During his visit to Washington in March, Walker will be paired with a VFW mentor and will accompany a VFW state delegation around Capitol Hill for in-person meetings with members of Congress. He will also receive briefings from federal officials on ongoing policy initiatives, and he will learn techniques to work with the media when advocating on veterans’ issues. Upon returning to Boston, Walker will be responsible for executing a community action plan, which includes the delivery of his research paper to his congressional delegation.
Walker will spend the spring semester examining statutory laws that have been in place for years, how the term veteran is defined in these laws, and how if the laws persist, they can counter initiatives to expand VA health care access to veterans with other-than-honorable discharges.