By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Tiffany Sauls talks about her military service in a mostly positive light.
The four years she spent in the U.S. Marine Corps added guidance and a goal-oriented mindset to her life.
“The Marine Corps grounded me in a lot of really great ways,” she says. “While I still consider myself a free-spirited person, and there may be a lot of lollygagging in between, I know where I’m going and I know what I want.”
Unfortunately, that’s not the case for many military members who struggle to find a purpose and sense of direction after their service ends.
A staggering 26.2% of military veterans have a mental illness or substance use disorder, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the suicide rate among veterans is 57.3% higher than that of other adults.
“When it comes to veterans and mental health, there’s a huge stigma,” Sauls said. “And a lot of veterans and people who are in the military feel like there are not enough counselors who can relate to them and understand where they’re coming from.
“It’s not always from the aspect of deployment or PTSD or other serious issues like that, but from the aspect of understanding how much it sucks sometimes just being taken away from everything. You’re taken away from where you live, you’re taken away from everyone you know, all these friends and social circles you built throughout your life. It creates this kind of loneliness and I think that’s where a lot of mental health issues stem from. When you understand that and you’ve felt that, it makes you more empathetic to that person and how they may be feeling.”
Now a senior at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, where she’s studying psychology with minors in criminal justice and behavioral and mental health, the 25-year-old plans to use her education and military background to support other veterans in need.
“I would really love to work with the veteran population, specifically in trauma-based illnesses as well as alcohol and substance abuse, because I think those are two subsets that really impact the military community,” Sauls said.
Born in Texas and raised in Lexington and North Platte, Sauls turned down a college scholarship to join the Marine Corps at age 18.
Although she has an older brother and sister who served in the Army National Guard and U.S. Air Force, respectively, her family still questioned the decision. That only fueled her rebellious personality.
“I’m always up for a challenge, so I thought, ‘What about the toughest branch? What about doing something that’s different and that’s hard?’” she explained.
At the time, Sauls didn’t have a specific career goal in mind, so military service also allowed her to “transition into life.”
“When I went into the Marine Corps, I went in open contract, which means you don’t choose your job. They put you where you’re needed,” she said. “I ended up being a diesel mechanic, which was totally different from anything I’d ever done before.”
“Mechanic was totally out of left field, and I didn’t really know what I was doing. I don’t think I even knew what a wrench was when I first got there,” she added with a laugh.
Sauls started her enlistment at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, California. There were only a handful of women working as mechanics on the base.
“The Marine Corps saying is ‘The Few. The Proud,’” Sauls said. “But female Marines say ‘The Fewer. The Prouder.’ Because there’s even less of us.”
Working in a male-dominated environment was challenging – female Marines definitely don’t get the same level of respect, Sauls noted – and it got even harder when she had her first child.
“I think that changed my perspective a lot,” Sauls said. “I think it humbled me in a lot of good ways, but it also built this resilience within me where I was like, ‘I can do things that are hard. I can make things work.’”
Sauls ended up starting a support group for other mothers on the base, allowing them to discuss topics related to parenting in a welcoming environment. She transferred to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina in 2018.
Reaching the position of floor chief and rank of lance corporal, Sauls added another responsibility at Camp Lejeune, where she transported prisoners – military members charged with or convicted of a crime – to mental health appointments. Recognizing her social skills and approachability, the clinical psychologist there recommended she pursue a career in counseling.
Now living in North Platte, Sauls takes classes through UNK’s online psychology program, giving her the flexibility to raise two boys, ages 6 and 3, while working part time.
“I absolutely love it,” she said of the program. “We have wonderful teachers here who genuinely care about their students and really want to see students succeed. And I think that’s important, especially from an online aspect.”
Although most of her coursework is completed remotely, Sauls doesn’t have any trouble connecting with faculty and fellow students when she’s on campus. She’s a member of the SALUTE Veterans National Honor Society and she participates in activities through UNK Military and Veterans Services, including a recent roundtable where student veterans met with U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough.
She’s also part of the Undergraduate Research Fellows program. Working with associate psychology professor Julie Lanz, Sauls is studying how food insecurity impacts college students’ academic performance. That research led to conversations involving the on-campus food pantry and ways to better support UNK students.
Lanz called her an excellent communicator and highly motivated student who’s both fearless and flexible.
“I can’t imagine a better combination as she progresses in her career,” Lanz said. “Tiffany’s strong work ethic and ability to manage complex tasks make her an ideal mental health professional. Her prior experiences, including her military service and research on the effects of nutrition, demonstrate a unique perspective and passion for addressing mental health issues. Her exceptional leadership skills, empathy and dedication to helping others will help her serve veterans well, and I’m excited to see what she accomplishes.”
Sauls will graduate in May with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, then she plans to continue her education in UNK’s clinical mental health counseling master’s program. After earning that degree, she’ll serve fellow veterans and other patients as a clinical mental health counselor.
“I’d like to be someone they can come to and feel understood while developing the proper coping skills so they don’t have to come back to therapy with me,” she said. “I think that’s the ultimate goal as a therapist.”