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    • Student Amy Zaycek shaking hands with President Obama
      Lieutenant Commander Amy Zaycek, a Fielding School MPH student, meets with President Obama at Walter Reed Military Medical Center in 2013

Service Calls

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The military has brought vastly different experiences for three current Fielding School students and a 2013 graduate, all of whom are committed to serving communities through public health.

One is a U.S. Navy nurse who once stood up to the Taliban as part of a successful effort to bring health care to a village in Afghanistan that had been without it for seven years. Another is a veteran of the U.S. Marines who began to appreciate the power of public health during interactions with displaced populations he encountered during the Iraq War - a revelation that eventually brought him to the Fielding School for his MPH. A third was an English major and Disney story-writing intern who never imagined the military would be the place for her, but now finds herself using her FSPH degree as an environmental health officer supporting the wellness of 150,000 service members at Naval Hospital Camp Pendleton. The fourth joined the U.S. Army at age 17 and was stationed on four continents during a seven-year military career, during which his duties included designing and implementing disaster planning and emergency management policies. Now, he is deepening his knowledge and applying it to civilian communities as a Fielding School doctoral candidate. 

For three current FSPH students and one 2013 graduate, the military has brought vastly different experiences - and to U.S. Army veteran Mike Stajura, that illustrates one of several important similarities between military service and public health practice. “Both offer a range of experience and application beyond what many people think,” Stajura says. “Public health can mean so many different things that we have trouble succinctly explaining it to our families over Thanksgiving dinner. The same is true for the military - it's part of such a large tapestry that it can't be summed up through one person's experience.”

To be sure, the two women and two men featured on the following pages have taken divergent paths. But at their core they share a commitment to service - and to public health.

Amy Zaycek

U.S. Navy nurse Amy Zaycek treats a small child during her deployment to Afghanistan.
In her decade-plus career as a U.S. Navy nurse, Amy Zaycek’s wide-ranging responsibilities have included managing trauma care for more than 500 coalition forces in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, where her small team helped to bring health care to a village that had been without it since 2002.

When the president of the United States points you in the direction of the Fielding School, you tend to listen.

Lieutenant Commander Amy Zaycek found herself engaged in conversation with President Obama last year during his quarterly visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. It was just days after Zaycek had received her acceptance letter to attend the Fielding School through the Navy's Duty Under Instruction program, and she was trying to decide between UCLA and another prestigious institution. “We had about a three-minute conversation, which ended with President Obama saying, ‘I think we just figured out that you'll be going to UCLA in the fall...good choice,’” Zaycek recalls. 

A young woman, Amy Zaycek speaks with another woman in Now Zad, Afghanistan.

The advice from the commander in chief was yet another in a remarkable set of experiences for Zaycek since joining the Navy as an active-duty nurse more than a decade ago. In Djibouti, Africa, she collaborated with the U.S. Agency for International Development on programs for female sex workers, as well as on strategies for preventing HIV/AIDS. In the Kingdom of Bahrain, she served as a clinic manager supporting the health of more than 17,000 U.S. military members annually. At the U.S. Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth, Va., she provided health care oversight to more than 200 victims of sexual assault, developing a model for the care of victims that was adopted in U.S. Department of Defense instruction.

Deployed to Afghanistan with the U.S. Marine Corps from October 2009 to May 2010, Zaycek managed trauma care for more than 500 coalition forces under austere medical conditions in Helmand Province while training and equipping other nurses for medical transport of critical patients. At one point she was summoned as part of a health care team to Now Zad, a village that had gone from vacation spot to ghost town during the war. After a battle in late 2009 flushed out the Taliban, Zaycek’s small team was brought in to assess the health needs of Now Zad’s women and children, who had lacked care since 2002. 

“In the military, we have to come in like a banshee and we aren’t going to be there forever. Through public health I want to continue to help build programs that will sustain after we’re gone.”  – Amy Zaycek

“I found myself face to face with members of the Taliban, who stated that they didn't want us there,” Zaycek recalls. After appealing for help from a village elder, “I won that argument.” Zaycek went on to diagnose diseases and provide care to more than 300 women and children in Now Zad during her two-month stay. The medical and civil affairs teams then developed a sustainable health system for the suddenly revitalized town, bringing in midwives, dentists, and other medically trained locals to run a long-vacant clinic. 

The experience was among those that made Zaycek realize that as much as she enjoyed direct patient care, she could touch more lives through public health. “In the military, we have to come in like a banshee and we aren't going to be there forever,” she says. “Through public health I want to continue to help build programs that will sustain after we're gone.” 

Mike Stajura

A man, Mike Stajura stands teaching in front of a small class.
Mike Stajura became interested in disaster planning and response activities during his seven years of service in the U.S. Army. He is currently a Fielding School PhD student and disaster educator.

From his time as an undergraduate at West Point, Mike Stajura knew his career would involve service to others. "That was bred into me - it was the mission of the university," Stajura says. After graduating, Stajura served in the U.S. Army from 1995 to 2002. It was during that time that he came to appreciate the value of social cohesion and community, an epiphany that eventually brought him to the Fielding School on a path toward a public health career.

Three men attending a fourth by an instructor in an emergency training class.

When he joined the Army at age 17, Stajura says, he didn't realize the extent to which he would end up putting aside his individual concerns for his fellow service members - and they for him. "I had never been in such a supportive social environment," Stajura wrote in "What Ails Vets Today," a 2013 article that appeared on Time magazine's website, in which he argued that many veterans miss the accountability, cohesion, and sense of purpose upon returning to civilian life. "We learned to think of others first." A similar focus on community and social support at the core of public health is what led Stajura to pursue higher education at the Fielding School, where he is now a PhD candidate focusing on emergency management and disaster preparedness, particularly as it pertains to community-based organizations and social networks. 

During his seven years in the Army - serving in Honduras, South Korea, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and on U.S. military bases in Georgia and Texas - Stajura fulfilled wide-ranging duties, but public health was always part of the job. As an officer he implemented health and safety policies, ensuring everything from anti-sexual harassment education to hand washing. As a platoon leader he ensured not only that the soldiers under his purview were equipped for their mission, but that they avoided injury and unsafe behaviors. As a company executive officer he participated in the design, implementation, and evaluation of health- and safety-related programs.

“My education here has helped me to make sense of everything I did before, while expanding my skills.”  – Mike Stajura

Stajura also became involved in disaster planning and response activities, and he was hooked. At UCLA, during the process of earning a master's degree in public policy with a focus on emergency management, he began taking elective courses in the Fielding School-based Center for Public Health and Disasters and concluded that public health's broader focus and emphasis on social cohesion better suited him. "My education here has helped me to make sense of everything I did before, while expanding my skills," Stajura says. 

As a disaster educator for the Los Angeles Fire Department and American Red Cross, Stajura always ends his talks the same way. "I tell people the most important thing they need after a disaster will not fit in their backpack," he says. "You can have all the supplies in the world, but in looking at the research, what's undeniable is that the thing that's going to help you the most in getting through a disaster is the person next to you." 

Jaime Lopez

Jaime Lopez standing on the UCLA campus, smiling.
Jaime Lopez’s combat experience as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps during the Iraq War pointed the Fielding School MPH student toward public health.

For Jaime Lopez, combat service as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps at the outset of the Iraq War was a harrowing experience that remains etched in his mind. It is also where Lopez first began to appreciate the similarities between his circumstances growing up and those of disadvantaged populations on the other side of the world.

A group of soldiers stand on the deck of a U.S. carrier.

Lopez was born into an immigrant farm-working family, his parents - neither of whom was educated beyond elementary school - drawn from Mexico by economic opportunity. After high school he joined the Marines, serving two tours in Iraq. While following orders as part of the mission, Lopez also found himself empathizing with displaced Iraqis, who reminded him of the mostly undocumented immigrants he knew from childhood. “As part of the infantry, the primary role was to take over the enemy,” Lopez says. “But there also comes a time when you have to protect those who are most vulnerable.” Lopez remembers seeing Iraqis leaving their homes in fear of being caught in the middle of the conflict. There were children on the streets with no guardians and no place to go.

“Within minutes, the whole town knew and there was a huge line — most of them not for first aid, but for more severe health problems that had never received attention. I didn’t know what public health was, but I knew this was something powerful.“  – Jaime Lopez

At one point when the conflict had subsided, Lopez’s unit was asked to help establish a security perimeter to allow for an impromptu first aid clinic within a small village. “The idea was to treat secondary casualties among the Iraqi population,” he says. “Within minutes, the whole town knew and there was a huge line - most of them not for first aid, but for more severe health problems that had never received attention. That's when it started to sink in. I didn't know what public health was, but I knew this was something very powerful.” 

Lopez continues to struggle with the memories of his experiences in Iraq. He still feels for the Iraqis he saw who were displaced. In a single day, he lost 18 of his fellow Marines when his battalion was ambushed in one of the war’s deadliest battles. Like so many combat veterans, Lopez has struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder. But having completed his first year as an MPH student at the Fielding School - with plans to earn a PhD and address the health needs of immigrant farmworkers - he is finding his way. “Gaining the ability to serve as a voice for those in need through public health has been therapeutic,” he says. “The experience was a double-edged sword, but ultimately the military is what led me to public health.” 

Harmony Larson

A young woman, Harmony Larson stands in front of an opened refrigerator.
Harmony Larson (MS ’13) is applying her FSPH education in her current position as an environmental health officer in the preventive medicine department at Naval Hospital Camp Pendleton.

When she was an undergraduate English major at UC Berkeley and then a story-writing intern at Walt Disney Imagineering, Harmony Larson (MS ’13) never pictured herself in the military. “I was very liberal arts-focused,” Larson says, laughing. “I didn’t see a match.”

A young woman, Harmony Larson checks for insects in trap hanging from a tree..

That changed after Larson’s brother joined the Marine Corps and began to provide her with accounts of some of the preventable health risks he saw and the need for education of his fellow service members about everything from basic hygiene to sexually transmitted infections. “A lot of people who join are fresh out of high school and living on their own for the first time, and I realized it was important that some of the things that are typically learned in college be taught in the military,” Larson says.

In search of a career path, she began to ponder what had previously seemed unthinkable. “I wanted to apply science and wellness outreach to as many people as possible,” Larson says. “I was looking for something service-oriented. So I ended up joining the service!”

“I didn’t know about the public health side. I wasn’t aware of all the humanitarian work, and before I began to look into it, I assumed it would be very rigid. But what I found is that being creative in problem-solving is an asset.”  – Harmony Larson

Larson enrolled in the Fielding School in 2011 and left with her MS in Environmental Health Sciences in 2013, funded for her second year by the Navy Medical Service Corps. Today she is an environmental health officer and lieutenant (junior grade) in the preventive medicine department at Naval Hospital Camp Pendleton, which provides health and medical support for the approximately 150,000 service members, families, and employees at the Marine Corps base. Her day-to-day responsibilities range from overseeing food inspections and immunization clinics to providing health education and investigating viral or food-borne outbreaks. “Every day is different, which is really nice,” Larson says.

When her brother first raised the possibility of  a military career, Larson didn’t realize what that could mean. “I didn't know about the public health side,” she admits. “I wasn't aware of all the humanitarian work, and before I began to look into it, I assumed it would be very rigid. But what I’ve found is that being creative in problem-solving is an asset.”

Larson’s public health education didn’t end upon graduation. “I still call on some of my Fielding School professors, and I’m grateful for having gotten to know so many diverse students from every department,” she says. “It’s translated well to what I do now, where, as with many public health positions, I need to interact with people from wide-ranging backgrounds to solve a wide variety of problems.”