Last year, Navy Lt. Lisseth Calvio wanted to do something hands on for her clerkship, the summer-long practicum before her final year at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. So she asked for—and received—approval to spend four months aboard the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz, deployed in the Persian Gulf and western Pacific from May through September 2007.
It marked the first time a Navy doctoral candidate fulfilled a clerkship aboard a deployed warship. The experience, says Calvio, prepared her for her future role as a Navy psychologist by helping her understand the constant strain the ship's crew feels as they live and work in crowded conditions.
"Everything they're going through, you're going through as well," she says.
Calvio and her supervisor, USS Nimitz psychologist Lt. Melissa Hiller Lauby, PhD, offered counseling, therapy and stress-management sessions to 5,000 sailors and officers.
Serving on an aircraft carrier can be especially taxing for younger sailors, many of whom had never been away from home before joining the Navy. Many were worried about their families back home and had to adjust to the nonstop demands of deployment, says Calvio. But helping the sailors wasn't new territory for Calvio: She had already served for three years as a surface warfare officer on two smaller Navy ships from 2002 to 2004. In addition, she was familiar with the sailors' experiences, having gone through Navy boot camp as a recruit herself.
From Hiller Lauby's perspective, Calvio's previous experience earned her immediate credibility: "She understands what it takes to meet the mission."
A day's work
Aboard the ship, Calvio's day started at 6 a.m. Following breakfast and a morning briefing, she and Hiller Lauby saw patients all day and sometimes at night for drop-in visits. Often, people came in with anger management problems, depression or anxiety. She also helped sailors work through conflicts with shipmates, sometimes by consulting with their supervisors and suggesting changes in work schedules. In the evenings, she taught junior sailors ways to reduce test-taking anxiety and modify their behaviors to lose weight, and she even helped teach an introductory psychology course for college credit.
Calvio also designed and led a 10-session stress-management class for senior enlisted men and women, the chiefs who have responsibility for helping keep the ship's systems operating, and mentoring sailors and junior officers. Because chiefs are always "on," they are particularly prone to intense stress. Calvio talked with them about the ways stress can keep a person from performing their best, and she taught them such coping exercises as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation and yoga poses.
Calvio followed her own advice and made time for stress-relief activities. She participated in the daily physical exercise drills run by explosive ordnance divers, doing push-ups and jogging laps on the ship's hanger bay. She also joined a salsa dancing group and helped put on a dancing demonstration during the ship's diversity awareness day.
One long journey
Calvio, actually, had been salsa dancing long before joining the crew of the Nimitz. A native of El Salvador, Calvio and her mother moved to the United States when she was 4, arriving with "just the clothes on our backs" and a few dollars.
She grew up in a loving home in a Passaic, N.J., neighborhood where families knew one another, she says. In 1996, Calvio enlisted in the Navy straight out of high school, looking for adventure and a route to an education. "I wanted to see the world," she says.
After finishing boot camp, she trained as a machinist's mate in the nuclear power program, a highly technical field that only takes in recruits who score high on aptitude tests. During her training, she applied for an ROTC scholarship and attended George Washington University.
After graduating in 2001, Calvio completed training to become a surface warfare officer. Aboard the USS Belleau Wood, she ran the deck department, supervising the sailors who do much of the hard, physical work of keeping a ship clean and running: handling the ropes when the ship docks, bringing aboard fuel and provisions, launching and recovering amphibious landing craft, and fighting the never-ending battle with rust. She also served as training officer aboard the USS Pearl Harbor.
Her experiences working with young sailors—helping them get assistance with family and personal struggles from the ships' chaplains, and serving as an advocate in a sexual assault victims' intervention program—solidified her desire to become a psychologist, Calvio says.
"I wanted to be in the healing profession," she says.
She also wanted to stay Navy, so Calvio applied for the clinical psychology doctoral program at the Uniformed Services University, which admits only two Army, two Navy and two Air Force students a year.
This fall, Calvio begins her internship year at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and she's looking forward to going to sea again.
"I'm hoping to go to a ship as soon as I get my license," she says.
By Christopher Munsey