Veterans Find Path Beyond Military in Health Programs

Bastyr students Jim Gilchrist, Jeff Holguin and Erika Whittier.

Military veterans Jim Gilchrist, Jeff Holguin and Erika Whittier took very different paths to Bastyr University. Each served overseas. Each faced a period of feeling lost and wondering what came next. Now each has a vision for restoring the health of others through natural medicine. And they're each pursuing their vision at Bastyr.

Twenty-three students at Bastyr receive tuition aid from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). They say they've been welcomed warmly by classmates, finding an intimate campus community and a planfor building a career that matches their values.

"I worried when I first came here that I wouldn't fit in, that people wouldn't be friendly to military," says Gilchrist, an Arabic translator in the Washington National Guard. "But I've found it to be totally the opposite."

Veterans add diversity to the Bastyr community as well, providing a breadth of experience that enriches academic life on campus.

"The veterans in my classes definitely have broader experience," says Naomi Lester, PhD , a professor of health psychology. "They've met more people. They know how to work with different kinds of people. And they bring a lot to the classroom."

As counselors, naturopathic doctors and other health care providers, veterans are also able to relate to other veterans with post-traumatic stress and other chronic conditions. It's a critical need: Suicide is now the leading cause of death in the Army, ahead of combat and vehicular accidents. Mental illness and addiction rates are higher among veterans than other groups. When veterans return from combat, health psychologists with military experience are especially effective in helping them, says Dr. Lester.

"For a lot of veterans, working with someone who's been there, seen that, felt that is really powerful," she says. "They need to be able to let their guard down with someone who can help them as a trained practitioner but also relate on a peer level.

"You can't get that from the friendly neighbor who wants to make you a casserole. It takes someone who has been through something similar."

Here are three snapshots of veterans working toward careers in natural health.


Working with PTSD

Holguin near Bastyr Student Village

Jeff Holguin was a rescue diver/emergency medical technician (EMT) and law enforcement officer in the Coast Guard, working in Guatemala, Guam and the Philippines. He dealt with hostage situations and migrant and drug smuggling until wrist and shoulder injuries forced a decision: "It was either a desk job or get out, so I got out," he says.

After eight years in the Coast Guard, the California native struggled to find his next step. He worked as a physical trainer but found the job didn't fit. He enrolled in a physician's assistant program until the program moved campuses. As he reflected on his missions, Holguin returned to the power of the mind in shaping perceptions of the world.

"So much of our perception of the world around us determines our own body chemistry," he says. "I always came back to psychology. For whatever reason, the discipline sticks with me. While I like the 'hard science' of biology, I don't think you can fully grasp medicine without the 'soft' science of psychology. Integrating the body and mind, to me, is essential."

He discovered Bastyr by running with his dogs on the trails at Saint Edward State Park next door. He stumbled on Bastyr's Medicinal Herb Garden and decided to look into the school. The combined bachelor’s program in health psychology and human biology appealed to him. It would prepare him for graduate school and let him understand the interconnection of mental and physical health, he says.

"I can completely change your body chemistry in half a second," he says. "Imagine that on a traumatic scale. If you see something traumatic, your body can change in seconds in ways that affect your entire life."

PTSD, depression, anxiety and other chronic diseases all have biological and psychological dimensions ­— and Holguin appreciates that the health psychology program studies both. He is applying to doctoral programs in clinical psychology for next fall, with the goal of treating other veterans.

"The military was such a big part of my life," he says. "Being a PTSD patient myself, and being unable to remain there as a diver or law enforcement officer, I feel like I still have more work to do there.

"What we're doing with military health care isn't working. Our suicide rate for vets is a huge failure on our part. After I get training to help soldiers and sailors with PTSD, I'll be able to relate to them."


Helping the Body Heal Itself

Gilchrist in campus courtyard

Jim Gilchrist was stationed in Mosul, Iraq, when he visited and saw a photo of students plunging into an icy Lake Washington in January. That sealed the deal for him. The second-year naturopathic medicine student loves the invigorating feeling of cold-weather swimming and he says Bastyr's Splash and Dash tradition made his choice clear.

That decision concluded a period of wondering whether there was room in conventional medical school for the things he really believed in — exercise and nutrition. He started college on a pre-med track until he learned about natural medicine. "I had an uneasy feeling about medical school," the Colorado native says. "I figured I'd have to wait through four years of medical school and four years of residency, and then I can start practicing medicine how I want to."

The 9/11 attacks prompted Gilchrist to study Arabic, and he joined the Army as a way to use his language skills. But he also felt a call toward helping others heal longstanding illnesses. "I liked the idea that the body can heal itself if you take care of it correctly, rather than putting a drug into it that causes a lot of side effects," he says. "I figured there had to be a more elegant way."

He considered naturopathic medical schools and visited Bastyr when the National Guard sent him to training in Fort Lewis, Washington. He drove beneath the towering forest at Bastyr's entrance and decided to apply.

"The air felt so clean," he says. "I saw the campus and knew I had to go there."

Gilchrist hopes to return to Colorado to practice as a naturopathic doctor.


Tired of 'Drugs First'

Whittier in campus garden

Erika Whittier spent nine years as an Air Force weather forecaster, providing weather data to pilots in Missouri, Alaska, England, Iceland and Spain. But the injury that led to her discharge took place on leave in suburban Seattle, when a police officer rear-ended her car, causing lasting chronic pain. Whittier's recovery convinced her of the shortcomings of conventional medicine — and set her on a new career path in health psychology.

"I went back thinking the military would take care of me," she says. "But the military's medical model of dealing with chronic pain was to throw medicine at it. They said 'Take 800 to 1,600 milligrams of Motrin everyday.' They had me try other pharmaceuticals to treat musculoskeletal pain and then essentially threw their hands up like there was nothing else they could do."

"It never made sense to me that they were just prescribing painkillers for a symptom, rather than looking at a problem."

Whittier studied science at Everett Community College and heard about Bastyr's health psychology program. She went to a Bastyr "food and mood" seminar and learned about the program's approach to mindfulness and health behavior.

"It sounded like the perfect stepping stone for me to figure out how to affect the change I want to see in the world," she says. "I know that sounds really ambitious, but change has to start somewhere. It starts with people who are passionate."

Like Holguin, she's considering graduate psychology programs that will equip her to work with veterans and other vulnerable groups.

"I want to change the current medical model in America," Whittier says. "I don't think the treatment protocol should be drugs first to address symptoms, and only look deeper to address causes as a last resort."

She was inspired by a Bastyr neurologist who calls mental health the most important kind of health.

"Where the mind goes, the body follows," says Whittier. "I really believe that. The power of our minds is what drew me to health psychology. The mind has the ability to harm, but also to heal."


Learn more about Bastyr's programs in health psychology, naturopathic medicine and other health care fields.