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The peace exchange
From left to right, Asli McCullers, a UD master’s of public health in epidemiology student, with her parents, Shelia Russell McCullers and Gregory McCullers.

The peace exchange

Photo courtesy of Asli McCullers

Epidemiology master’s student stresses need to improve health of marginalized veterans

University of Delaware graduate student Asli McCullers’ parents are both disabled military veterans. Gregory McCullers and Shelia Russell McCullers met as specialists in the Army. 

“My mom was named Soldier of the Year, and my dad always talked about how he saw her picture on the wall and said, ‘I’m going to marry her!’ They’re both very proud of their service,” Asli McCullers said. 

Both of McCullers’ parents now serve on the Command Council for the Western Maryland Chapter of the National Association for Black Veterans, which was established to address injustices all veterans face through service.   

“They also push to ensure that stories of Black veterans who have been forgotten are amplified in the present,” McCullers said.  

Their experiences advocating for marginalized veterans have helped inform and shape the graduate student’s research in epidemiology. While this marks the first time she's delved into veterans’ health, McCullers has always been interested in health equity and social justice. 

“Having that lens and seeing their journey made me realize this is a pocket of instability in the United States,” she said. 

McCullers, a second-year student in the masters of public health in epidemiology program, recently had an editorial published in the American Journal of Public Health.

“Having her work featured in the American Journal of Public Health, which is published by the American Public Health Association, is a tremendous accomplishment,” said Jennifer Horney, professor and founding director of UD’s epidemiology program. "Beyond the personal achievement, the inclusion of this work in the premiere journal of public health research and practice demonstrates the importance the public health community places on hearing different voices on social determinants frameworks."

Her work was published in response to a call for papers on how peace can be used as a catalyst for outcomes of conflict, violence and political instability and how peacekeeping and a lack of peace can influence health outcomes. 

“There’s this built-in adoration for the military. Our armed forces in the U.S. are seen as one of the most powerful in the world,” McCullers said. “My parents are proud veterans but realizing in their journeys with the disabilities they acquired from their service, including adjustment disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and them being Black veterans as well, it interested me to look into the illusion of peace that’s structurally built into the armed forces and health equity outcomes."

McCullers found that African American men and women, Hispanics and other races and ethnicities report worse self-rated health, greater Veterans Administration healthcare use and more combat exposure than their white counterparts, according to an article published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health

“That makes you think of the history of our country with the enslavement of Africans,” McCullers said. 

According to the Brookings Institution, African Americans are targeted for military recruitment at a 2:1 ratio compared to Black men in the civilian workforce. She called into question various recruitment strategies. 

“There’s a commercial on Pandora that has hip hop music to it and recruits people to join the military. Why does it have an urban feel?” McCullers said. “There’s specificity in that targeting, and it leads to those kinds of outcomes. We see that over representation of historically marginalized folks in the military.”

She also pointed to motivations for joining the military, as identified in a Rand Corporation article.

“Motivations can be income-related; they may need to pay off debt and joining the military might be the best option. Or they need to get out of a bad situation and joining the military was their only option,” McCullers said. “Thinking about that intersectionality…to be in a country where ‘justice for all’ didn’t apply to them, but they are getting increased combat exposure, more likely to have PTSD.”

McCullers hopes her paper inspires others to think harder about military sacrifice through a social justice lens.

“What does it mean to say: ‘Thank you for your service?’ Is it just automatic? Or do we understand what’s underneath that?” she asked. “People who are military veterans are exchanging their peace to protect the peace of a country that for minoritized veterans wasn’t built for them.” 

She said she also hopes her piece encourages people to think more about promoting peace in their daily lives. 

“‘Protecting my peace’ is something we see on social media a lot these days,” McCullers said. “But there’s a lot of depth in nodding to the significance of mental health preservation and how external factors like violence, fragility and political instability influence that.”

As a current Social Justice Peer Educator at UD, a program that aims to bridge the gap between mental health and diverse identities, McCullers stressed the need to have more conversations around mental health as one way of achieving more peace in the U.S.  

“More robust, affordable, culturally sensitive, equitable mental healthcare services would be a good start,” she said. “We can advocate for that by speaking out more about mental health and checking in on friends.” 

She also encouraged people to be mindful of their day-to-day interactions with others. 

“Our bandwidth to pass happiness or peace forward in our daily interactions is within our control,” McCullers said. “You can make a little footprint of peace in your everyday interactions.” 

When it comes to the military, she hopes her published editorial promotes an ongoing conversation about improving the health of marginalized military personnel. 

“A military infrastructure that decenters violence and global domination and instead centers on justice for all, authentically, should define the future of peacekeeping for the next generation,” she wrote in her paper. 

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