In honor of Veterans Day, CSSW’s Communications Office spoke to current second-year student Gina Marie Bartolomeo about her experience of building a career in military social work, which she is now doing with the help of a fellowship from the Cohen Veterans Network. Though not a veteran herself, Bartolomeo has developed a passion for serving people who’ve served, as she explains in this interview.

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Thanks, Gina, for agreeing to do this interview. What motivated you, a non-vet, to start working with vets?
After graduating from Fordham University with a BA in Political Science in 2010, I took a job with a small firm where the CEO was a recipient of a Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest award a member of the US armed forces can receive. We were contracting with the Department of Veterans Affairs to help them clear the disability claims backlog. As I learned more about veterans and their needs, I found that I wanted to connect with this population—more than a simple “Thank you for your service.” I left that job to work for the Warrior-Scholar Project, which helps veterans return to school upon transitioning out of the military. At that time, I also volunteered with Team Rubicon, an organization that recruits military veterans to help with disaster relief.

What kinds of activities did you engage in with Team Rubicon?
I spent several weeks working side by side with veterans in Oklahoma and later in Arkansas after they were struck by violent tornadoes. My veteran colleagues and I got to know each other quite well. After hearing their stories of service and war. I developed a huge respect for them and their contributions.

Did you enroll in Columbia University’s School of Social Work because of all your work with veterans?
Yes. Even though my mother is a social worker, I never thought of going into social work until I became involved with service members, veterans and their families. I realized an MSW would help me have more of a direct impact on that population. I’m now in my second year here at Columbia. I’ve chosen the Advanced Clinical Practice method and am specializing in Health and Mental Health with the hopes of becoming a military social worker upon graduation this coming May.

We understand you are also one of the School’s first Cohen Scholars?
Yes, I’m honored to have been chosen as one of the first Cohen Veteran Network Scholars from Columbia. Under their auspices, I was able do a field placement last year at the Manhattan VA, learning about medical social work. This year I am in Washington, DC, at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. I’m interning in their Addictions Treatment unit, learning what it takes to become a substance abuse counselor.

We heard you also did something related over the summer?
This past summer, I spent ten days in Vietnam volunteering with Habitat for Humanity through contacts I made while volunteering at my beloved Team Rubicon.

That sounds amazing. Tell us more.
I worked side by side with ten Vietnam War veterans and two Iraq war veterans on a project that entailed building two houses. My team was working on building a house for a Vietnam veteran who fought alongside the American army in Cambodia. Although we didn’t have time to finish the house, we were able to forge a bond with the future homeowner. We also talked to a number of Vietnamese people about their experiences of the Vietnam War. I was struck by how graciously the local Vietnamese people treated the American Vietnam war veterans. Likewise, I could see it was important for the Americans to do something good in a country where they’d fought and experienced horrific losses as well as hellish conditions.

It’s heart-warming to hear stories of reconciliation on Veteran’s Day.
Yes, it was wonderful to witness this kind of empathy between people who were on different sides of a conflict. I also enjoyed befriending Hanh, who works locally for Habitat for Humanity. Hanh has been studying social work in Vietnam and told me it’s her dream to come to the United States for an MSW as Vietnam does not offer social work graduate school.

Gina Marie Bartolomeo with Hahn

Gina with her Vietnamese friend and fellow social work student, Hanh

Let’s hope she can make it to CSSW some day! Thanks so much, Gina, for sharing the story of the important work you have done, are doing, and hope to do in future, with veterans.

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  1. Bernadette bartolomeo says:

    Keep up the good work, Gina Marie!!! So proud to call you my daughter!