The following feature is part of the series, VA Researchers Who Served. These profiles bring to life the critical work that VA researchers are doing for the Veteran community and highlight and recognize their military service, while including a touch of human interest and an inspirational tone. The series honors those who once served and who continue to serve through their VA research endeavors.
James Joseph, a Marine Veteran, is a research coordinator at the Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL). HERL is a VA facility that does research, development, and testing on an assortment of technologies. It is a collaborative effort between the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System and the University of Pittsburgh. His responsibilities include peer mentoring with Veterans, students, staff, and faculty, with a focus on physical and mental disabilities. He assists and supports disabled Veteran study participants and colleagues living with disabilities and acts as a facilitator to ensure inclusion for everyone at HERL. He’s also tasked with coordinating five research studies and is assigned to a collaboration with the International Society of Physical and Rehabilitation Medicine. He served in the Marines for more than two decades, earning a series of honors including the Meritorious Service Medal and the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal.
What motivated you to join the military?
My father and two of his nine brothers served during World War II. My mother’s brother served in the Navy during that time, and another of my father’s brothers served after the war. One of my older sisters, Diane, enlisted in the Army when I was a high school freshman. My family’s identity was predicated on knowing how many first-generation American relatives had served in the military. Seeing pictures of them in uniform made me want to serve. I was taught from an early age to love my country, our flag, and the American way of life, and to be thankful we live in a freedom-loving country. I knew by 10th grade I would be enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps. I was not ready for college at 18, and I was determined not to be a financial burden on my parents.
What inspired your research career?
Working for Dr. Rory Cooper, the director of HERL, opened my eyes to renewed service for a higher purpose. The largest minority in the world is people living with disabilities. Upon realizing the demand for innovative advances to improve the quality of life among all people with disabilities, including Veterans so near to my heart, I felt a natural pull to want to help HERL succeed in any small way.
My father’s situation is forever imprinted on me. He was diagnosed with diabetes when he was 51, and I was 10. He dealt with a succession of physical ailments, including multiple feet and leg amputations, stroke, loss of speech, and use of his right arm. The doctors of 1971 had little of today’s medical imaging, balloon angioplasty, and glucose monitoring technology. He was living at the Pittsburgh Aspinwall VA long-term care facility when he passed in 1986. Diabetes management is now part of my life, as well as PTSD and other results of military life. I spent my last seven years on active duty as a diabetic. Only my commanding officers and first sergeants were aware. Having a chance to assist any Veteran or person with disabilities is humbling knowing what my family experienced.
Did you have mentors who inspired you in life, the military, or your research career?
I am inspired by President John F. Kennedy, who said, “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” That is a foundation I have believed in my whole life. The Marine Corps promotes leaders. I worked among many who by deed or even misdeed gave me insight toward building my personal toolbox of skills. Dr. Rory Cooper has allowed me to try to live up to JKF’s words through work projects that directly benefit Veterans. His encouragement, guidance, and ability to connect Veterans and people with disabilities with a better quality of life via technology, while encouraging inclusive academic involvement in research, is unrivaled.
How do you feel about the possibility of making life better for Veterans through your research?
I am humbled by the opportunity to contribute to research that influences real-world quality of life advances. It’s a highly motivating experience watching my colleagues, many of whom have disabilities both visible or hidden, create, develop, improve, and ensure the safety of progressive assistive technology. HERL is closely supported by VA and Veterans themselves in our research process. Knowing my brothers and sisters in arms may benefit from our work is the ultimate reward.
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