Around 175,000 young Americans are recruited each year by the U.S. military. A sacred promise made by President Abraham Lincoln -- we will take care of those who have served -- is at the heart of the recruiting pitch. How that promise often plays out at UNLV and other universities is through helping veterans access educational benefits and counseling.
To honor veterans at the UNLV School of Medicine during the recent Veterans Day celebration -- more than 70 students/faculty/staff at the medical school are veterans -- a luncheon was held by the university and the UNLV School of Medicine Military Medicine Group at the Shadow Lane Campus.
The veterans on hand included Dr. David Parks, a UNLV Medicine pediatric pulmonologist, and Cam Johnson, the medical school’s director of IT operations. Students in attendance included Maran Shaker, whose service as a combat medic in Afghanistan was previously chronicled in Making The Rounds, and Caleena Longworth, the medical school’s only female student veteran -- she’s subsequently become an officer in the Nevada Air National Guard.
Longworth’s story -- Ross Bryant, the director of the UNLV Military and Veterans Service Center, noted that each of the 1,865 veterans or family members of veterans serviced by his center has a story worth listening to -- is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit.
Now 29, Longworth, who received a full tuition scholarship from donors as a member of the medical school’s charter class, definitely wasn’t born on Easy Street. Understandably proud of what she’s accomplished, she hopes her story helps others realize obstacles do not have to hold your goals hostage.
“My mom had me her senior year of high school when she was 17 years old,” Longworth says. “I met my biological father one day when I was 12 but he didn’t want to have a relationship...My mom was a single mother for the majority of my life, cutting hair to make a living...In my early childhood, we were evicted from several apartments because what my mom made didn’t cover all the bills...I feel like we moved every couple of months and each time we put our things in storage and moved in with my grandma and grandpa. They lived in a 16-foot long RV because they had to sell their house to pay for my grandpa’s medical expenses. It was six of us total in the RV. I would sleep on the side of my grandparents’ mattress on the floor with a sleeping bag and blankets. My sister Stacie slept on the floor on the other side. My mom and other sister, Jolene, slept in the little living room part of the RV.”
Both the low income apartments and RV that she lived in were in a part of town where gang violence was common. After school, Longworth’s mother made her change into black or white clothing so she wouldn’t be mistaken for wearing the colors of a rival gang.
The threat of becoming caught up in gang violence wasn’t her only concern.
“I was made fun of in elementary school because I didn’t have the nicest clothes. We bought our clothes at Kmart or Walmart or got hand me downs from other families at the start of the school year. By the spring I usually outgrew the clothes and wore things that were too short for me. Or if there were holes or stains in my clothing I would just keep wearing them because we couldn’t afford new clothes. A few times the school counselor offered to give my sisters and I clothing, but my mom didn’t accept. I think she was too embarrassed.”
Getting wholesome food to eat was difficult.
“We were on food stamps until middle school. There would be plenty of food in the house around the first of the month, but toward the end of the month, there wasn’t much to eat...All our vegetables were canned because it was what we could afford. I remember it was a treat to get frozen broccoli and cauliflower.”
When she was eight, Longworth’s family moved into a double-wide trailer. While many of her neighbors were good people who happened to be poor, some of her neighbors were known as meth addicts. “I was actually really embarrassed about where I lived in middle and high school and never invited friends outside the trailer park over. As I’ve gotten older though, I’ve become less embarrassed and it’s helped me appreciate what I have in life now so much more.”