Syracuse University Magazine


U.S. Army veteran Charles Preuss '17 takes his shelter dog, Bear, for a stroll on campus.

Understanding Trauma

To military veteran Charles Preuss ’17, knowledge is power. That is why he was eager to participate in the Trauma Research Education for Undergraduates program, a unique academic initiative launched three years ago by Falk College professor Brooks Gump and SUNY Oswego psychology professor Karen Wolford to train teams of undergraduate veterans and non-veterans from Syracuse University and other institutions to conduct trauma-related research. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the program draws on the personal experience of veterans who are likely to better understand the nature and context of traumatic events and gives them the tools to gain a scientific understanding of trauma as a way to improve the quality of life for themselves and their fellow veterans. “I got banged up a bit in Afghanistan and suffer from traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” says Preuss, a paratrooper who was medically discharged from the Army last year. “When I got home, I had a difficult time transitioning to civilian life.”

The program was initially designed to help veterans trying to catch up academically and prepare them for the rigors of graduate school. However, non-veterans showed an interest as well. “They gain a better understanding of the veteran population and context for trauma research,” says Gump, Falk Family Endowed Professor of Public Health and director of graduate programs in public health at Falk College. “Program participants are a good mix of men and women from around the country with diverse ethnic backgrounds, various military experiences—including Vietnam—and a variety of fields of study.”

Preuss says working with classmates from a wide array of backgrounds was eye-opening because he was exposed to a diverse range of thinking that helped push new ideas to a different level. “It was a great benefit that 50 percent of the participants are non-veterans,” he says. “Veterans make up only 1 percent of the population, so I’ll be interacting with non-veterans 99 percent of the time.”

The initiative features an intensive four-week summer session on campus consisting of mini-courses, a speaker series, and a group research project. Courses taught by faculty from SU, SUNY Oswego, and SUNY Upstate Medical University cover such topics as diversity and trauma, self-awareness and self-care, communication and cohesion, mindfulness-based stress reduction, and the genetics of psychiatric disorders. Following the summer session, the students return to their home institutions to work on individual research projects under the continued mentorship of program faculty. “The ultimate goal of the program is for each student to submit a research paper for presentation at a conference or publication in an academic journal in the spring,” Gump says. “Hopefully, that will make them more competitive when applying to graduate school.”

As a continuation of the group project, Preuss is collaborating with a SUNY Oswego student on assessing the Dogs2Vets program at Clear Path for Veterans in Chittenango, New York, near Syracuse. The research team is conducting qualitative interviews with veterans who have been selected to receive dog training prior to choosing an animal shelter dog. Their progress will be tracked with follow-up interviews designed to document the impact of dog ownership, which may include love and companionship, increased sociability, and a calming effect on veterans suffering from PTSD. Once the data is analyzed by public health professor Dessa Bergen-Cico ’86, G’88, G’92, lead investigator on the project, the research results could be included in future publications. “This is huge because I have an opportunity to see my name on a research publication before I’ve even graduated from college,” says Preuss, an entrepreneurship and emerging enterprises major at the Whitman School who plans to pursue a master’s degree in public administration. “I recommend this program 110 percent.” —Christine Yackel