Wheat colored diagonal lines overlaid over the corner of a photo of Kevin Rumley who looks off into the distance with a title of Lighting the Pathway framed in double dark grey lines

Lighting the Pathway

Anniversaries are hard for Marine veteran Kevin Rumley (’24).

January 10, 2000, and April 7, 2004, are two dates burned into his memory. His mother passed away unexpectedly on January 10 when he was 15 years old, and just a few years later an IED in Iraq exploded, killing Rumley’s best friend and sending shrapnel tearing through his body.

“When I was in active addiction, that’s when the symptoms were the worst,” says Rumley, who recently graduated with a doctorate in social work. “Those days caused pain. I’d use drugs, isolate more, causing me to use more drugs and isolate even more, sparking a cycle of maladaptive coping strategies.”

He says the day that IED exploded was the date of his recovery 10 years later.

“Recovery is about a continuum of wellness—a pathway, not a solution,” says Rumley, acknowledging the fraught nature of recovering from drug addiction.

With long brown hair and a flowing beard, Rumley looks the part of the rocker he is. He’s been a drummer since childhood and still plays and records with various musicians, including former Band of Horses lead guitarist Tyler Ramsey and Her Marigold with his brother, Matt. And he released a solo album on April 7—the 20-year anniversary of the IED

As program director of the Veterans Treatment Court in Buncombe County, North Carolina, Rumley works to find pathways for veterans who have committed felony offenses—in many cases to support their addictions. The nonpunitive two-year program addresses the core issues of mental health, trauma, and addiction.

“We do that by supporting treatment, stable housing, vocational support, education, and cultivating a sense of well-being, purpose, and hope,” he says. In that mission Rumley is using the expertise and training he’s gained in the Doctor of Social Work program through UT’s College of Social Work and Vols Online.

“In many cases my doctoral work reaffirmed to me what I already knew but is supported by the research,” he says. “At the core are the relationships that we have with our clients and with ourselves. By showing love, understanding, positive regard, and seeing these human beings as whole entities, we can truly see them—actively see them—at the deepest level.

“That is what UT has given me: how to better love, in a way.”

Kevin Rumley sits on an amplifier holding drumsticks


Growing up the middle of three brothers in Fairfax, Virginia, Rumley says he was anxious, shy, and reserved. But music was how he connected with people.

“When words failed me, music was still there in my life.” He played drums with his friends in Bandazian, a name taken from a local realtor’s sign because it sounded cool.

His mom, Mary, an elementary school librarian, encouraged him to connect with others by volunteering with the Special Olympics. He coached swimming, basketball, and bocce ball. When he was 15, his mother died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism.

“She had been the rock of the family,” says Rumley. “My sense of security and safety was shattered.” And the family did the best they could to survive. Right before his high school graduation, Rumley rode his skateboard to the Marine Corps recruitment office and signed up to serve. Since he was only 17 his father, John, a former Marine himself, signed his enlistment papers.

Deployed to Iraq near the Syrian border, he was on foot patrol on April 7, 2004, when an improvised explosive device killed one comrade, injured another, and sent shrapnel through Rumley’s legs, arms, hands, and eye.

“In that moment I was terrified,” he says. “It was a feeling of drowning, of complete terror as I looked at my femur bones where the skin and flesh had been removed.”

His company lost 26 comrades during their time in Iraq—a fact that Rumley still feels deeply. He underwent 32 surgeries over 18 months at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, DC, where a doctor told him he would never walk again. He had chronic physical and emotional pain and woke at 4:30 each morning with flashbacks.

“I was discharged from Walter Reed with a bagful of opioids,” says Rumley. “I didn’t have a plan. The opioids gave me peace and euphoria.” He moved in with his dad for a while and then couch surfed with friends. In 2006, he moved to Asheville, North Carolina, where his older brother, Matt, lived. Rumley toured with bands and continued his drug abuse and drinking.

He attempted to stop drugs and alcohol many times on his own. Finally, Matt took him to the Charles George Veterans Administration Medical Center, where Rumley was a psychiatric inpatient for two weeks and began medication-assisted therapy and individual and group counseling. Slowly he began to take control of his life.

On his pathway of recovery, Rumley earned his bachelor’s degree in public health at the University of North Carolina Asheville in 2013. He became a certified substance abuse counselor and began working as veteran outreach director at North Carolina Brookhaven Behavioral Health.

Kevin sits at his desk in his office washed in warm golden light speaking with a fellow person while looking at a laptop computer

That work led Rumley to pursue his master’s degree in social work at Western Carolina University, focusing on trauma resiliency and substance use recovery. There he came to fully grasp what was drawing him to social work: “It isn’t telling people how to live,” he explains.  “It’s unconditional support—helping people problem-solve, empowering them to make pathways to change, while striving to advance social justice.”

While working toward his master’s, Rumley started volunteering as a veteran mentor-counselor with the VTC and was soon hired as its coordinator. “Their suffering is shrouded in stigma, shame, and guilt,” he says of veterans. “If we actually spend the time that’s needed and have a community surrounding those who are suffering, change is possible.”

Two years later, when he decided to pursue his doctorate, UT caught his eye with its Veterinary Social Work certificate program, but when he looked deeper, he saw the College of Social Work’s strong focus on the trauma recovery and resilience paradigms, in particular for justice-involved populations.

“During the pandemic, an online program was attractive,” Rumley says. “I always felt like I wanted more training to take a deep dive into the field of social work.”

He appreciated the flexibility of being able to work with VTC during the day, have class in the evening, and collaborate with peers on the weekends.

Before he began the program, Rumley met with UT’s Student Disability Services to map out potential avenues of support should his PTSD kick in again.

“It was a preventive game plan. SDS came up with a wide range of accommodations and reached out to all the professors. It was a buffer. I never had to ask for an extension or any accommodations, but there was just something in knowing that the university is understanding and would have provided it if I needed it.”

Rumley says he struggles with connecting to people after the loss of his friends in combat and his mother’s death, but through his doctoral program he came to understand the active ingredients for change in human beings. He knows that you have to be in a relationship with yourself, show up, and have compassion and grace for yourself.

‘“I’m proud of the courage it takes to even begin this endeavor. I’ve had imposter syndrome since day one, feeling not capable, not smart enough, so it was something to have been able to set this intention and achieve this goal.

“What I tell veterans all the time is if you keep showing up, you can achieve anything.”

Bolstering Online Learning

A new partnership with Arizona State University will expand UT’s online degree offerings, making it easier for students in Tennessee and beyond to gain access to a world-class education.

This new alliance allows both universities to leverage resources, build best practices, and bring the expertise that exists on each campus to students in a digital format.

The collaboration agreement includes three main components: a course exchange between universities, collaboration on technology solutions, and operational advisory services provided by ASU to accelerate the development of UT’s independent infrastructure and operational footprint.

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