Gold Star Wife Earns Ph.D.
By Dan Silvia, Communications Manager
That’s the message delivered to Kimberly Vaughn on August 6, 2011 when a Chinook helicopter, call sign Extortion 17, was shot down in the Wardak Province of Afghanistan. Her husband, U.S. Navy Seal, Aaron Vaughn, was on board along with 29 other military service members.
With a nine-week old daughter and a son under two-years old, Kimberly Vaughn had to survive, and, eventually, recover, strive, and achieve. On Saturday, June 3, 2017, she’ll reach a milestone in that effort, graduating with her Ph.D. in Human Capital Management from Bellevue University. Her degree was made possible in part by a grant from the Special Operations Fund.
“In the first few years after Aaron’s death I was in a daze. I was basically trying to make sure my kids were bathed, fed, in bed, that there was food on the table, clean laundry, and all the normal day-to-day activities that now seemed insurmountable,” Vaughn said. “But, slowly, I realized I wanted to live the life worthy of Aaron’s sacrifice; and the sacrifice so many military make for us. I wasn’t going to turn down any opportunity provided to me, including the one offered to advance my education.”
Vaughn, a Senior Program Manager for CACI International, Inc., in Norfolk, Virginia, had already earned her Master of Science in Organizational Management (MSOM) from Bellevue University in 2008 and holds a bachelors of business administration in computer information systems from James Madison University.
“In 2006, I received an email that introduced a new partnership between CACI and Bellevue University regarding a new MSOM degree,” she said. “The next thing I know, I had signed myself up and was enrolled in the first cohort.”
Vaughn took on the challenge again, starting her Ph.D. program in 2013.
“Earning my Ph.D. was a self-discovering process. I already knew I had a ‘never-quit’ attitude and this process reminded me that I enjoy challenge,” she said.
Vaughn’s dissertation, Productive Humor and Leadership Effectiveness: A Grounded Theory Ethnography, was inspired by a weekend retreat for Gold Star Wives with humorist Ron Culberson.
“For the entirety of his time with us, I couldn’t stop laughing. This was a welcome relief from all the grief and tears that accompany loss and that is when I knew I wanted to study something that made me smile and laugh,” she said. “Considering the long hours I knew were going to be put toward this great effort, to enjoy the journey I would need to be enthusiastic about the topic.”
Dr. Stephen Linenberger served as dissertation chair for Vaughn and gives her rave reviews.
“She was a very good student, very focused and very organized,” he said. “She was an absolute pleasure to work with. She did a very cool study and it was very well received by our committee. She sailed through it with flying colors.”
While the grant helped take care of the financial end of earning the degree, the task of tackling a Ph.D. program, while working full time and raising two young children, required a team effort.
“I have an amazing support system. My parents were supportive from the start and offered to help with my children (more than they already do) as my Ph.D. workload increased,” Vaughn said. “As I flew from Virginia to Omaha for the on-campus residencies, they cared for my children and made sure all was taken care of on the home front. Not to mention, they made sure I had a quiet house during tests and, of course, the comprehensive exams and dissertation defense. What a relief!”
Kimberly’s dad, Retired Navy Commander Alan Linberger, earned a special shout out.
“My father has, by far, been my biggest champion with my academic and career endeavors. Don’t get me wrong, I have had a lot of support and cheerleaders along the way, but he’s always reminded me that education is something that can never be taken away from you,” Vaughn said. “Here I am, graduating, 20 years after starting my career with CACI as Dr. Vaughn. Thanks for instilling in me a love of learning, Dad!”
Vaughn was born in Guam and, growing up, lived in Hawaii, Florida, Maine, Spain, and Virginia. After her marriage to Aaron, the couple lived in California and she and her children currently make their home in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
“Having grown up in a military family, I was instilled with respect for those who serve this great land we live in,” Vaughn said. “Of course, I also remember to honor, and respect, not just my husband, but all those who gave their lives protecting it; not just on Memorial Day, but every day.”
Aaron and Kimberly met while she was performing on a United Services Organization (USO) tour, part of her role as a member of the Washington Redskins Cheerleaders. She was a member of the squad from 1998 through 2007.
“I was on a tour with a stopover in Guam which just so happened to be where he was deployed. He came to a show… we chatted… next thing you know, we exchanged emails… emails led to phone calls… and years later we were married!” she said. “So, suffice to say, I took a lot away from my cheerleading experience!”
Today, Vaughn’s biggest cheerleaders are her son, Reagan, now 7-years old, and her daughter, Chamberlyn, now five. Mom will be walking across the stage as Dr. Kimberly Vaughn in just a few short days.
“Becoming Dr. Vaughn is amazing! I wanted to yell it from the mountain tops, but I’ve been reminded that when you achieve any great accomplishment humility is key. Don’t get me wrong; one of the first things I did was update my workplace email signature block and make a Facebook posting or two, but I also try to keep in mind what I learned from my late husband,” she said. “He was a US Navy SEAL with the Naval Special Warfare Development Group (also known as SEAL Team 6). When asked what he did for a living, he’d simply reply ‘I’m in the Navy.’ I’ve learned that, although I’m honored to be amongst a distinguished group of individuals, I don’t need to tout my accomplishment. I will still introduce myself as Kimberly Vaughn… and sooner or later, when people find out I have my Ph.D., it will speak for itself.”