The veterans

Jeni Hunniecutt (PhD ’18)

When Jeni Hunniecutt ended her eight-year stint in the Army National Guard and came to the University of Denver to earn a doctorate, she developed anxiety, depression and eating issues.

“This whole gamut of mental health struggle slapped me in the face,” she says.

No one had warned her that losing her military community would be wrenching. She didn’t even identify as a veteran because she’d never deployed.

Then Damon Vine was hired as DU’s first Veteran Services director. Vine told her: “Of course you’re a veteran.” And he took her to the opening of DU’s Sturm Center, which researches military psychology and provides psychological services for veterans and their families.

In another stroke of serendipity, Roy Wood pulled his family communications student aside and said: “Your research is the military; this is your work.” (Wood, who retired after nearly 32 years as a DU provost and communications professor, died Oct. 1, 2019.)

“And that was a turning point for me, the mentorship I got from him and from meeting Damon,” Hunniecutt says. “It was a turning point in my professional and personal life in terms of coming to my own identity as a veteran: What did my service mean? How did it change me? It was where I started to dedicate my own career to work with veterans.”

She served as a military psychology outreach specialist for the Sturm Center, joined Vine and fellow veteran Josh Oakley to create a new DU Student Veterans Association, and worked as a teaching assistant and adjunct professor.

Her dissertation examined veteran identity and reintegration; Palgrave Macmillan will publish it as a book in March.

Once she obtained her PhD, she headed to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to work first as a research specialist, then as assistant director and research assistant professor for the institution’s Chez Center for Veterans.

Hunniecutt, 32, started her higher education journey at King University in Bristol, Tennessee, near her home—encouraged by her parents, who left high school but later earned their GEDs and professional licensures.

From central Appalachia to the hallowed halls of academia, this veteran has come a long way. But she’s just getting warmed up.

After three years at the Chez Center, she left in August to launch Veteran Research Consulting, a nonprofit aiming to bridge the gap between academia and veteran communities, curating “research with, not on” veterans. And she continues to collaborate with the researchers at UIUC.

“The nonprofit will be possible because of the research I do, the grant funding, the donations,” she says. “There’s a drastic need for researching with not on, so I felt a call to focus on that. The nonprofit is still in the idea stages.”

And she’ll be “returning to Appalachia, my home space, where I served in the military, where my family is. I am a mountain girl.”

Eventually, she plans to open a veterans’ center in Asheville, North Carolina, “a pocket of progressive, liberal attitudes in the South,” to provide complementary therapies from yoga and mindfulness to mental health therapies
using art, animals and wilderness. There, she’ll also advance her research.

“My military service changed my life profoundly,” Hunniecutt says in an email. “I have always had a love/hate relationship with the military, and that holds true today with the professional work I do. … I openly critique the institution while also creating empathy and space of healing for those who serve/d.”

In Denver, Vine lauds her for helping to create the Student Veterans Association and working with the Sturm Center in its early stages. “And really, [Hunniecutt and Oakley] gave me a solid platform to build the Veteran Services department. A lot of the events we have are built off the work they did in 2015 and 2016.”

“DU is where it all started for me,” Hunniecutt says. “I thoroughly believe in leaving a place better than you find it. And DU left me better than when I came in. It was a beautiful symbiotic relationship.”

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