Nov. 8, 2023
Navy veteran and VCU doctoral student Jennifer Weggen is serving her military colleagues on many fronts
Her research focus on PTSD, traumatic brain injury and heart health, and her work with student and alumni military groups, reflect a longstanding passion with family roots.
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An Air Force brat, as she refers to herself, Jennifer Weggen remembers the moment she felt the desire to go into the military. She was 10 and living with her family in West Berlin, deep inside East German territory, when the Berlin Wall existed. Even though she was young, she knew the difference between free West Berlin and Communist East Berlin.
“It was then that I decided I wanted to serve my country, as my father was doing,” said Weggen, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Virginia Commonwealth University and is now a doctoral student in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences in the College of Humanities and Sciences.
During high school in San Antonio, Texas, Weggen was part of the Navy Junior ROTC program.
“The United States Naval Academy was the natural progression, especially since my older brother was already a Midshipman there,” she said. “I preferred the Navy because I love the water and prefer it to the woods or desert.”
Weggen earned her first undergraduate degree there in 1990, and during her 12-year military career, she worked as a Supply Corps officer. She was stationed in a variety of locations, including Charleston, South Carolina, and Guam, as well as on the USS Holland (AS-32) and in Norfolk and Richmond. The workload was challenging.
“It was never-ending. I always worked 50-plus hours a week, so even shore duty was tough. It was hard to know when to stop,” she said.
The long hours put a strain on her family, so much so that she decided to leave the military. “I loved being in the Navy, so it was an extremely tough choice,” said Weggen, who made lifelong friends in the service.
Becoming part of the Ramily
She was living in Richmond with her husband and family when she chose to attend VCU, where her son was already enrolled.
“We were students together, and we were actually in the same major. But we didn’t have any classes together, though we were in different sections of the same courses and had the same instructors,” Weggen said.
In 2014, she earned an undergraduate degree in health, physical education and exercise science. Associate professor Joann Richardson, Ph.D., was her first advisor and mentor in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences.
“She really helped me feel like I belonged and helped me navigate my time as a very nontraditional undergrad,” Weggen said.
She also appreciates the diversity at VCU and the support from other veterans in Military Student Services and across the university. “You don’t find that combination — strong support of both veterans and of diverse student populations — very often,” she said.
Her student experience included an internship at the Richmond VA Medical Center, where she had the hands-on opportunity to help veterans.
“I will be forever grateful to my supervisor and mentor, Ruth Meyer, for opening my eyes to the needs of other veterans,” Weggen said.
“You don’t find that combination — strong support of both veterans and of diverse student populations — very often.”Jennifer Weggen
Promoting veteran health
Currently a Ph.D. candidate specializing in exercise physiology in VCU’s Rehabilitation and Movement Science program, Weggen works with advisor and mentor Ryan Garten, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences. She started working in his lab in 2017.
“He’s patient, understanding and incredibly knowledgeable. He allowed me to take on significant responsibility early on, which gave me a great deal of experience in research right away,” Weggen said. “I doubt I would have gone for a doctorate if it hadn’t been for him and am grateful for him every day. I hope to collaborate with him in my research endeavors after I graduate.”
Weggen’s dissertation research is related to post-traumatic stress disorder and cardiovascular disease risk. She plans to continue her research, a large part of which will focus on investigating conditions related to veteran concerns such as PTSD and traumatic brain injury.
Weggen also is a research assistant with professor Jim Burch, Ph.D., in VCU’s School of Population Health and hopes to continue that work after graduating.
“Not only do I want to gain a better understanding of the chronic/overactive fight-or-flight response seen in patients with these conditions, but I also want to develop practical and effective methods to help them improve their quality of life and decrease their risk of cardiovascular disease,” she said.
Weggen often talks to veterans about PTSD and TBI.
“These disorders affect a large number of veterans, including some of my shipmates and friends,” she said. “Nonpharmacological approaches to decreasing symptoms of these disorders is necessary, as drugs do not always work and/or have many negative side effects.”
Weggen noted that PTSD is far more prevalent in the general population than many people probably realize.
“It is even higher for military personnel and veterans, especially women. Combat exposure increases the risk of PTSD threefold. As a nation, we ask these men and women to put themselves at risk not just physically but mentally as well. And these mental health disorders add to their risk factors for cardiovascular disease and other conditions which lead to early death,” Weggen said. “This is where my Ph.D. research is focused. I feel it is our obligation to provide them the best care possible. Finding ways to prevent and effectively treat these disorders are the very least we can do, and if there is some way I can help, I want to do it.”
Making a wide-ranging impact
At VCU, Weggen also has assisted with Military Student Services’ Green Zone program, which trains faculty and staff to support veterans and their families as they transition to academic life. In addition, she serves as secretary of the Military Veterans Alumni Council, which collaborates with Military Student Services on activities such as the upcoming Veterans Day event on Nov. 10.
Beyond campus, Weggen has volunteered at the Virginia War Memorial and, for nearly two decades, has been an avid participant with the U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps, a nonprofit for youths ages 10 to 17 that is sponsored by the Navy and supported by the Coast Guard.
“The lessons I learned from the Navy, such as diligence, initiative, work ethic, teamwork and leadership, are things I want to pass down to the next generation,” she said. “Sea Cadets allows me to help mold the future leaders of our country and still be connected to the military.”
Being a veteran reminds Weggen that she is part of an “amazing group of people who understand what I have been through,” she said.
“There is a special bond we share, regardless of when we served and the color of the uniform that we wore. We truly understand what is meant by the phrase ‘freedom isn’t free.’ It is paid for by the sacrifices of our shipmates, our buddies, our friends, ourselves,” Weggen said. “What does Veterans Day mean to me? It means we haven’t been forgotten by the nation we served.”
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