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An Alumni Story Honoring Veterans Day: ‘Do It Scared’

Each Veterans Day, we honor and celebrate all our University’s military veterans. With that in mind, we would like to spotlight AMU alumnus Kirsten Johnson. Kirsten is a second-generation United States Army veteran specializing in substance abuse and family care counseling. Read her story below to see how her family, her Army experience, and her education have led her down the path of success.

Following in her Father’s Footsteps – Another Army Veteran

Kirsten’s father was an Army intel officer, so she understood the important role that our military plays in securing our freedoms. After settling in Minnesota – where she grew up the oldest of three sisters – Kirsten enjoyed school and took advantage of many opportunities. Upon returning to the U.S. after an exchange semester in Germany, she enlisted in the Army as a medic and left for basic training in 2004 – following the path set by her father.

Kirsten Johnson Army Veteran
U.S. Army Veteran – and AMU alumnus – Kirsten Johnson. Credit: AMU

After seeing friends and loved ones returning from deployments and struggling in many ways, Kirsten knew she wanted to work in a public health capacity within the Army. Subsequently, she has dedicated her education and career to exploring how to successfully implement the vital culture changes needed to assist returning service members.

Educational and Professional Path

Kirsten already had credits from her Army training time. Alongside credit from the Army, she also used some of her completed college credits and took advantage of American Military University’s (AMU) transfer credit policies. After her earning her undergraduate degree, Kirsten enrolled with American Military University (AMU) and attained her Master’s Degree in Public Health in 2013.

When Kirsten left the Army in 2013, she was looking for ways to come back and support veterans as a civilian. In 2014, a contract program announced it was piloting a civilian-led substance abuse prevention program and Kirsten jumped on it. She had a team of four who built the program in Minnesota from the ground up. They also worked in collaboration with other states to help create their own substance abuse prevention programs. Kirsten said, “I’m proud to say a lot of what we did is still standing and growing today.”

Building Programs for Partners as an Army Veteran

With the Army substance abuse prevention success, Kirsten was asked to pilot a similar program with the Air Guard in 2020. Once she got that program off the ground, Kirsten was looking for federal employment instead of contract work. At that point, she moved over to Family Programs where she could focus on family care.

Kirsten loved her time supporting families but when the J9 Integrated Prevention Program opportunity came up, she knew it was time to make the move. Kirsten said, “I knew this was the program I have dreamed of since I was a soldier myself, and I had to be a part of building this from the start, too. Where substance abuse and family programs were siloed from each other, this J9 will take a whole-person approach to all the issues we can prevent and combine our knowledge and resources to deeper change and earlier interventions.”

Success Starts at Home For Many Veterans

Kirsten would describe her life as turbulent, but now – as an Army veteran – she says, “it feels like I am through the clouds and heading toward clear skies.” Kirsten showed a lot of perseverance to get through school with two small kids and a husband struggling with severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Then, it was hard starting her post-graduate career as a single mom through the preteen years of her children. Now that Kirsten is in line with the path she dreamed of as a child she said, “my kids are happy and healthy, my dream job is just starting out, and I’m feeling at peace with where I am in life.”

[Related Article: Army Offers Free Childcare to Promote Retention]

Kirsten mentioned her greatest accomplishment to this point in her life sounds small compared to starting up whole programs, but in Family Programs, she helped a small team of volunteers put on a 2,000-person Family Day last June. She said, “not only was it a massive logistical undertaking that involved thousands of dollars in funding, donations, and volunteers, but it shifted the entire culture of the unit we were supporting.”

Kirsten was recognized by the Army’s Brigadier General, Division Commander, and went on radio shows, and it reenergized the dynamic of the unit to be more supportive and inclusive.

Advice for Others and Next Steps

Kirsten’s advice to others transitioning from the Army and other military branches would be, “to have a clear vision of the effect you want to have in the world, and just keep moving toward it and doing excellent work along the way.” Kirsten was the first choice for the J9 team because she had a strong reputation for starting successful prevention programs. None of those were Kirsten’s big dreams, but she did her best and kept moving forward until she found the thing she always wanted to do with her career.

Kirsten also says to “do it scared.” Kirsten used to be much more of a perfectionist, to the point it would paralyze her until the timing was better or the product was tweaked. Kirsten’s mentors pushed her to take imperfect action, speak to big groups with a knot in her stomach and convey confidence even when she was overthinking in her head. Kirsten credits that advice to where she is today.

Kirsten’s career journey is just beginning. She envisions her team’s J9 substance abuse prevention initiative creating a shift in military culture in Minnesota within five years – and a similar nationwide shift by the 2030’s. Her goals are to get her kids out on their own, move out of the suburbs and get some space in the beautiful Northwoods of Minnesota.

This article was written by By John Robert Morton, Student and Affairs Liaison, and Kirsten Johnson, AMU Graduate.

About the Author

John Robert Morton is a Student & Alumni Affairs Liaison and has been with the University for 13 years. His bachelor’s degree in European history is from Troy University in Troy, Alabama. He also completed master’s degrees in political science and sports management from American Military University. As a liaison, John Robert enjoys helping students and alumni to achieve their personal and professional goals.

About Our Alumni Affairs Office

The Alumni Affairs Office is dedicated to sustaining lifelong relationships with university alumni – many of whom are veterans – by providing engaging opportunities to stay involved and connected. We work closely with a variety of stakeholders to strengthen the alumni experience and to offer a variety of benefits, services, activities, and events throughout the year.

As a team, the Alumni Affairs team works to build and sustain relationships with alumni – many of whom are enlisted service members or veterans – along their personal and professional journeys. We actively look for ways to recognize and showcase alumni, telling their stories to motivate and encourage students in the pursuit of their goals.

If you are a member of the alumni community and are looking for ways to remain actively involved, please contact and speak with a member of the team.

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