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Recent graduate Christopher Robinson led a first-ever survey of northern Kentucky veterans.

Chris Robinson

by NKU Magazine contributor

During his time as a Northern Kentucky University graduate student, recent alumnus Chris Robinson ('17) helped lead an effort to conduct the first survey of veterans living in northern Kentucky for his capstone project in the Master of Public Administration (MPA) program. As a veteran living in the region himself—he enrolled in the Navy to fund his undergraduate studies and used his GI Bill education benefits to pay for graduate studies—Robinson was excited to work with the Tristate Veterans Community Alliance (TVCA) on the survey project. In particular, he was committed to getting representation from all branches of service and from various military campaigns and eras.

Rusty Mardis, director of the TVCA's Veteran In-Processing and Welcome Center, initiated the project when he realized that there had not been a survey of the 30,000 veterans living in northern Kentucky. He wanted to learn more about their personal experiences transitioning from military to civilian life, their needs and challenges such as employment and health care, the organizations where they seek support and their evaluation of services they receive.

Mardis, who is also a veteran, had attended NKU as an undergraduate student, so he decided to reach out to NKU's Graduate Programs office for help with the survey. Ultimately, he talked with Dr. Julie Olberding, director of the MPA program and professor of the capstone class, and she made the connection between him and Robinson.

"Like many of our capstone experiences, it was a great partnership between a student who was looking for an interesting project and a community organization that needs help with research, analysis and reporting," Olberding said. "This one was particularly interesting and fortuitous in that the student is a veteran and the organization serves veterans. It really seemed meant to be."

With input from Mardis and others, Robinson created an online survey instrument. Then Mardis shared the survey link with individual veterans that the TVCA serves and with a coalition of veteran organizations in the region. In addition, the two made efforts to get responses from veterans who may not have access to the internet due to their age or other circumstances.

"I worked with Mr. Mardis to make the survey more accessible by bringing it to various veteran events in the region," Robinson said. "We brought iPads, borrowed from NKU, so that individuals could complete them on the spot." These events included a veterans appreciation luncheon at St. Elizabeth Hospice, the Salute to Service 5K in Newport and the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) 5K Run to Honor Veterans at Sawyer Point.

In the end, more than 200 veterans completed the survey. The respondents represented all branches of service—Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, National Guard and Reserves—and they were involved with military campaigns ranging from the Korean War in the 1950s through Operation Iraqi Freedom in the 2000s. 

Some of the key findings from the survey are that 75 percent of respondents were deployed to campaigns in which the U.S. was involved and 92 percent of them received an honorable discharge. About 65 percent indicated that they do volunteer work in the region, which is more than two times the national rate of volunteerism in the United States.

In addition, the survey confirmed that veterans in northern Kentucky face challenges similar to veterans across the country. About 50 percent of respondents indicated their transition from military to civilian life was challenging, and they reported top concerns as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and depression, and suicide. A 2016 study by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs concluded that an average of 20 veterans die by suicide each day in this country. 

Mardis has shared a summary of the survey findings with local government officials in the region, including fiscal court judge executives and commissioners, mayors, city council members, and city managers and administrators. He plans to present the survey results to community groups and governmental bodies, possibly even state legislative committees or departments.

For Robinson, the survey project was a natural extension of a lifelong dedication to public servitude, and he's now weighing various offers to put his MPA degree to use in the public sector. "My goal," he says, "is to work as a public official again."