Matthew Braswell leads the Military Medical Interest Group, a UNC School of Medicine student organization with the goal of helping families at UNC Hospitals and broadening the medical experience of medical students.
Matthew Braswell has long known he was called to service. Raised in Wilmington, the son of two teachers, Braswell said his parents stressed that whatever career he chose to pursue should be one that helps people.
After attending UNC as an undergraduate, Braswell looked for a way to combine his desire to serve his country with a career in medicine. He met a Navy recruiter who told him about the Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP), which is offered by all military branches to provide scholarship funding and stipends for students who make a commitment to active service after completing their medical training.
“When I found out about the program, I thought it sounded like a great way to accomplish my career goals and also give back in the way that I wanted to,” Braswell said.
An Empty Table
When he began medical school at UNC, Braswell said he was eager to meet other students interested in military medicine. He attended a student organization fair, where he saw a Military Medicine Interest Group on the list of participating organizations.
“I went to the table and it was empty,” Braswell said. “There was no one there, no sign—nothing. It was a huge disappointment.”
Braswell found out the group’s former faculty advisor had retired and student participation had waned. Even though he was just beginning his first year of medical school, he took it upon himself to get the group going again.
“North Carolina is such a military-friendly state,” Braswell said. “We serve veterans, military members, and their families every day at the hospital. I felt there was a real opportunity to connect that community more with our students and faculty.”
Braswell reached out to Georgette Dent, MD, associate dean for student affairs, and Julie Byerley, MD, MPH, vice dean for education, who were both supportive of his effort. They helped connect him to UNC’s many military-affiliated faculty members.
“I was so fortunate from the beginning to get plugged into an incredibly special group of people,” Braswell said.
He credits the group’s current faculty advisors, Timothy Weiner, MD, professor of surgery, and Martin McCaffrey, MD, professor of pediatrics, with helping to establish a vision for what the group could become. Both are veterans who have worked to make sure the UNC Medical Center is as welcoming as possible to veterans and military families.
“We were basically rebuilding the group from scratch and they helped me understand some of the things we needed to address,” Braswell said.
McCaffrey is proud to work with the students.
“The Military Medicine Interest Group is composed of enthusiastic, patriotic, service-minded individuals,” McCaffrey said. “It is a group that should give us all great hope for the future of our nation.”
Bridging a Gap
Braswell explained that he has taken a two-pronged approach to the work of the reinvigorated MMIG. First, they participate in activities familiar to other student groups including lunch events, mentoring opportunities, networking, and shadowing.
Those events have helped connect both student veterans and HPSP students who may not have met otherwise.
“Without a group like this, there is a chance that all the HPSP students could have similar questions and no real way of knowing all of the other students in the program. And it’s the same with our medical students who are former service members. It would have been very easy for veterans not to know that other students in their classes were also vets,” Braswell said.
The work of the group has also helped to bridge a gap between student veterans and HPSP participants.
“Our former service members have loved the service aspects (of the MMIG) and what we do for vets,” said Braswell. “Then, for the HPSP students, a lot have never worn the uniform, never been on a base. Their only military experience—myself included—is a couple of hours in a recruitment office. This provides a view into the culture.”
The group’s veterans have been instrumental in helping to set the other key priority: helping veterans who are interested in medical school.
The group’s former service members said that they wish they had more help navigating the process of applying to medical school—from all the pre-requisites to preparing for the MCAT—and someone to talk to about what medical school is really like.
MMIG has made a point to provide answers to these questions.
“The information is out there, but it can sometimes be difficult to find,” Braswell said. “We want to give veterans who are interested in medical school the opportunity to ask the questions that they have and do our best to answer them candidly.”
Providing hands-on experiences is an important tool in the development of MMIG. On a trip organized by UNC medical student and former Green Beret Karl Holt, the group toured the Joint Special Forces Medics Training Center at Fort Bragg and observed field training exercises. For some students in the group, Braswell said, it was their first time on base and an opportunity to experience the military’s work ethic and culture.
Braswell has also been working with leaders like Byerley on the idea of incorporating military medicine and veteran care into the TEC curriculum.
“Educating medical students about the unique culture and experiences of veterans and military families is absolutely critical to providing good care.”
“With our state’s and nation’s massive number of veterans, I feel confident in saying that everyone who graduates from medical school here will care for a vet at some point in their medical career,” he said. “Educating medical students about the unique culture and experiences of veterans and military families is absolutely critical to providing good care.”
The MMIG recently expanded its scope to support a charitable cause, Special Ops Survivors, which provides support for the spouses of Special Operations soldiers killed in action. Braswell became aware of the group after hearing the story of Amy Jones, MD, a third-year resident in pediatrics at UNC, whose husband, Jason, was killed in Afghanistan in 2014.
The MMIG has formed a team and will participate in a Spartan Race held in April in Charlotte. They are using the race as a fundraising vehicle and will donate all proceeds to the Special Ops Survivors group.
On Dec. 6, at halftime of the UNC Basketball game against Davidson College, Braswell, Weiner, McCaffrey and Jones were honored as part of Military Appreciation Day at the Dean E. Smith Center. The purpose of the ceremony was two-fold: to recognize the work of MMIG and to raise awareness for Special Ops Survivors.
In the near future, Braswell hopes the group will be able to make an impact on even more military families at UNC, launching a military family support program. He has worked closely with McCaffrey in planning the program. In the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, McCaffrey interacts with families going through incredibly stressful situations. Some of those families have driven from Fort Bragg or Camp Lejeune. In other cases, a spouse may be deployed or away at training. Braswell envisions students from the MMIG providing social support and a sense of community for these families.
According to Braswell, the infrastructure is now in place to launch the program.
“Anything we can do to make them feel supported, we want to do,” Braswell said. “From coming to visit and talk, to bringing them a snack from the cafeteria, we want them to understand we are here for them.”