A group of UH Hilo psychology majors and an alum participated over the summer of 2021 in an internship program at the SEAL Future Foundation; four went on to volunteer at the Military Special Operations Family Collaborative.
By Maisie Paulson.
Over the summer of 2021, a group of psychology students and alumni from the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo interned at two non-profits supporting Navy SEALS and others in the special operations community with health and psychological difficulties caused by their work while in the military. The purpose of the student internships and volunteer work was to experience research and other activities in the field.
The connection to the foundations is through UH Hilo Professor of Psychology B. Christopher Frueh, whose work spans 30 years of clinical and professional experience with active and retired military individuals. His most influential work is on Operator Syndrome (International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine, July 2020), defined as health, psychological, and interpersonal difficulties associated with serving in military special operations. It’s described as a “whole systems approach” that seeks to understand complex injuries such as traumatic brain injury, endocrine dysfunction, sleep disorders, and social impairments.
“[My] work on Operator Syndrome is changing the way we understand and treat the complex set of interrelated health, psychological, and interpersonal difficulties that are common downstream outcomes of a career in military special operations,” says Frueh.
Frueh’s work is studied by students in the courses he teaches at the university, focusing on changes in the field and understanding the ways in which mental health is treated, especially among veterans. So when the SEAL Future Foundation reached out to Frueh in search of guidance in expanding their program, the psychology professor found it to be a great opportunity for students to be part of the process. The nonprofit group was happy and open to allowing student interns to support their efforts while gaining experience in the field.
Students also did volunteer work with another group called Military Special Operations Family Collaborative, a nonprofit public health initiative in support of the special operations community.
“The contributions made by our team of students and alumni, including their fresh perspectives, was greatly appreciated by the leadership at both foundations and also by me” says Frueh. “It also seemed to be a valuable real-life learning experience for them.”
Internships at SEAL Future Foundation
The group of UH Hilo psychology students who participated in the internship program at the SEAL Future Foundation were Athena Coley, Trevondrick Harris, Maisie Paulson (author of this story, who graduated with a B.A. in Psychology, 2022) Marcus Plataniotis, Gina Rudine, Laura Tsunehiro, and Isabella Zingray. Alumna Jane Walsh (B.A. in Psychology, 2021) also participated. Each was assigned group and individual tasks to assist the foundation in serving its members.
The foundation is a nonprofit group that provides support to Special Operations Force (SOF) members and veterans to get healthy and find new purpose in life. Families and members can struggle while being separated for long periods of time and when the member comes home with injuries, most notably traumatic brain injuries, it can put enormous amounts of stress on the family. The foundation focuses primarily on four issues: health, career, education, and community. The interns were asked to keep these issues in mind while performing their tasks.
Harris says he discovered there are far more resources available to veterans based on their specific needs.
“I got to be the middle person of referring people to resources they needed,” he says.
Through speaking with SOF members and veterans, the interns were able to hear and better understand the psychophysiological effects traumatic brain injury, coupled with serving, may cause. Interns used screening techniques to identify symptoms that may indicate Operator Syndrome.
During the internships, students felt they were helping a community of individuals who feel underrepresented.
“I gained a lot of insight into the serious effects of Operator Syndrome and how we as students with psychological knowledge can bring awareness to it,” says Plataniotis.
Volunteering with Military Special Operations Family Collaborative
After finishing work with SEAL Future Foundation, students still interested in continuing psychological work were invited to volunteer with another group called Military Special Operations Family Collaborative, a nonprofit public health initiative for the special operations community. The group supports families through collaborative health and well-being research and programs.
The collaborative assigned the students—Harris, Plataniotis, Rundine, and Zingray—individual tasks relating to their current studies and in preparation for a conference they would be attending.
Paulson and Rudine were chosen to assist in the publication of a book on the importance of family meals. Rudine thought the collaboration for the cookbook was a creative way to bring awareness to this issue.
“[It was] an exciting opportunity to work with a team, share ideas and my input, and grow skills in creative writing that tied into family-oriented mental health and bonding experiences,” says Rundine.
All the interns’ collaborative work with both organizations came together when four of the group attended a Navy SEAL Foundation’s health conference in San Diego. Here, myriad groups attended in support of bringing awareness to treating active duty members and veterans. Students Coley, Plataniotis, Rudine, and Zingray, who were financially supported by another SOF foundation, Quick Reaction Foundation of Houston, attended the conference to learn about current programs and research from around the nation.
Plataniotis said the most valuable takeaway from the conference was being able to interact with veterans face to face, hearing them share their experiences, seeing how tight knit the community is, and hearing the appreciation for Professor Frueh and his team’s work.
“Being with Prof. Frueh, we really got the opportunity to hear all the work he has done in the community over the years,” says Plataniotis. “It felt purposeful giving folks attention and helping them connect with medical services they needed.”
By Maisie Paulson (B.A. in Psychology and B.A. in Administration of Justice, 2022).