Graduated, enlisted, blown up, hospitalized, released, addicted, homeless, hopeless, rescued, enrolled, graduated, employed, enrolled, graduated, honored, redeemed.
Read between those lines a minute, and listen.
There is a rhythm to the madness that once defined Kevin Rumley’s life. (Figures. The dude’s a drummer.) But now, there’s only rhythm. No madness. Just peace, love and joy – mostly. And purpose – definitely purpose.
Thanks in part to scholarship support, Rumley, 33, is graduating from Western Carolina University this month with a master’s degree in social work, a once seemingly impossible achievement for a homeless veteran suffering from drug addiction, who spent nearly $100,000 of his combat pay on prescription opioids before switching to heroin when his money ran low. But, he overcame the odds and is dedicated to helping other veterans do the same. He understands them because he is one of them.
Rumley was a 20-year-old Marine lance corporal when he was nearly killed by an improvised explosive devise while on patrol on April 7, 2004, in Husaybah, Iraq, at the Syrian border. The explosion killed his best friend and blew out Rumley’s knees and femur and left his body full of shrapnel. He spent 18 months at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland – very near his home in Fairfax, Virginia – where he had 32 surgeries and was told he would never walk again. (He did.)
Rumley had joined the Marine Corps in 2003, right after graduating from high school, to travel and see the world. Less than a year in, he was hospitalized in his own backyard, 100-percent disabled and suffering from addiction. He sank into despair. And then the hospital released him. “I was so young. At the time, I remember thinking, ‘I’m done. I’ve lost my friends, I’m over the Marine Corps, I’m moving out of Northern Virginia and I want that all in my rearview mirror,’” Rumley said.
“This was early in the buildup of troops in Iraq, and the process of discharging a veteran after a year and a half in the hospital was new. There wasn’t the Wounded Warrior Project yet, so I was new to this process, too. I remember they gave me a bagful of meds – opioids – and I hit the road,” he said.
But, he didn’t know where to go, so he spent a year couch surfing with friends, getting high, getting drunk, traveling, searching and hurting. Always hurting. “I was full of guilt and shame because my best friend had died and I didn’t have the courage to commit suicide,” Rumley said. “I had also been ripped from my tribe, my brothers. I didn’t have a purpose, an identity. Those are the things we talk about in social work classes, these four existential truths that we all desire, and I had lost my friends. So, I was homeless and hopeless.”
After a short stint living with his dad, a retired Marine and retired police officer, Rumley moved to Asheville in 2006 to live with his brother, Matt, but he quickly moved out. The addiction had taken over. “I didn’t have many protective factors in Asheville,” Rumley said. “So, I would run out of meds early and go to the street, which isn’t a pharmacy. That’s how it spiraled out of control. The only reason I was able to transform and change was because my brother took me to the Charles George VA.”
Rumley spent two weeks in the VA’s psychiatric inpatient program, where he started medication-assisted treatment, a combination of Suboxone, which reduces the desire for heroin and other opioids, and individual and group counseling. “Suboxone saved my life and that’s something I’m a big advocate of. So much of this old conversation is you’re either using or you’re not. You’re either not yet in recovery or you’re clearly still an addict. But, there is a continuum of recovery and that includes managing addiction as a chronic disease.”
“As a student of social work, I am really impressed with my older brother because he provided unconditional support, regardless of my behavior,” said Rumley, who now serves as coordinator of the Buncombe County Veterans Treatment Court, an intensive program that focuses on recovery instead of punishment for offenders. “He wasn’t telling me what to do, how to change my life, what I needed. He did a lot of what’s called motivational interviewing, like ‘what are your goals, how can we identify those and then support you to achieve them?’”
Rumley’s brother also had urged him to enroll at the University of North Carolina Asheville, which Rumley did, shortly after he arrived in Asheville. Using financial support designed for disabled veterans, Rumley earned a degree in public health, going part-time for nearly seven years and graduating in 2013. His brother and his dad were at his graduation when Rumley was called to the stage for an unexpected honor. “They gave me the William and Ida Friday Community Service Award,” he said. “I had no idea. It was huge.”
And that is where the good, the bad, the past and the present of Rumley’s life converged, shook hands and made peace. Rumley’s mother died unexpectedly from a pulmonary embolism when he was 15. But several years earlier, she had urged him to volunteer with Special Olympics, to work with young children with developmental disabilities, which he did as a young teen, starting as a swim coach, and loved it. Furthermore, he discovered he liked working with people and within systems that promote health.
After he moved to Asheville, Rumley worked odd jobs and drummed for various bands in the area, touring on weekends, all while enrolled at UNCA. But his mother’s desire for him to help others was never far from his heart. He volunteered for two years with the Buncombe County Department of Health, leading its Community Health Assessment, and co-founded Shiloh Community Garden. He now volunteers for Special Olympics and does one-on-one peer support for individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities.
Rumley’s public health degree landed him a job in community mental health, where he noticed most of his co-workers had master’s degrees in social work, a degree not available at UNCA, he said. The field intrigued him. “I was really drawn to this idea of social work, because it isn’t telling people how to live. It’s a lot like how my older brother treated me, it’s unconditional support, helping them problem solve, empowering other people to make pathways to change,” he said.
So, he enrolled at WCU. Patricia Morse, head of WCU’s Social Work Program, took notice. “He’s an exceptional student among a group of exceptional students,” she said. “I recognized how special he was the first couple of weeks of class. He wrote so well and spoke so well. To be a social worker is a very special occupation, and I’m very glad he chose it.”
Rumley received about $4,300 in scholarships, including the Dr. Patricia Morse Scholarship and the Mission Health System Scholarship, which helped supplement his income when he worked as an unpaid intern. “It eliminated a lot of stress, which can lead to addiction,” he said. “It helped maintain my recovery. That is not a stretch at all to say that. A lot of my graduate experience has been ‘how do I maintain stability, not become too stressed out?’ I’ve had a lot of friends who have been concerned that I’ve taken on too much. I think, and my peers say this a lot too, that financial stress is the biggest stress for all students. So, the scholarships are great for sobriety.”
Rumley’s classmates appreciate his journey. They chose him to be the student speaker for the hooding ceremony the day before graduation, where he also is receiving the Excellence in Leadership Award. “The challenges he has faced in his life have given him the heart, the vision and the strength to help others,” Morse said.
And that is why Rumley can say with complete honesty that the explosion on April 7, 2004, that nearly killed him was a good thing. “I have the space now and the distance where I am grateful that it happened,” Rumley said. “A lot of opportunities have stemmed from that. At the time and for seven years, I was addicted to opioids and really struggled. But I am now in long-term recovery, I have seven years clean and it opened my eyes to the support our veterans need and my own personal experience. I’m passionate about helping veterans who are now in the same situation I was.”
Is he surprised that such a horrific event can be the catalyst for joy? Yes, he said. “The transformation did not occur overnight, but was instead a journey of a million steps. It wasn’t until I achieved my goal of graduating with my bachelor’s degree that I felt a sense of wonder and awe of the tragic experience of death and loss in Iraq, wonderment that I was alive and realizing that life is precious,” he said.
“There is something to be said about looking back,” he said. “It was in 2013 when I began to realize that I had the power to change my story. I had ownership over my story, and I was able to finally see myself in a different light. As a social worker, this ‘change’ is the crux of our profession, how we can facilitate in this process of growth, change and transformation. A beautiful thing.”
For more information on how to provide scholarship support for WCU students, visit the website leadtheway.wcu.edu or call 828-227-7124.