Celebrating Heroes

Service Doesn’t End When the Tour of Duty Concludes

You know those YouTube spots that populate the screen before videos you actually sought, forcing you to wait for the “Skip Ad” button to appear, clicking through to get your desired media? Those short clips most often have no relation to what you are seeking, nor do they seem remotely interesting. Rarely, one pops up and captivates much of your very existence, past and present. That happened this morning. The parallels are striking, so I thought I’d celebrate this hero who couldn’t stand the stumble after a decade of military service ceased and civilian life resumed…traversing the road upon which I, too, often take a knee.

I viewed the seven-plus-minute spot which depicted former U.S. Army pilot James “Matt” Landis. Like so many others who served in our beloved military, he told his story of flying an Apache helicopter mission in the Middle East and being shot down in 2009. He survived, but he sustained severe injury which unfortunately ended his military career. Landis now lives with a disability with varying names, one most-commonly known as traumatic brain injury (TBI).

Upon honorable discharge and his civilian life plans not exactly getting off the ground, Landis told the media in 2015: ““[Veterans] assume that when we get out, there are going to be things that we can do, everyone is going to be dying to get ahold of a veteran because we have so much leadership experience. And then you get out…I mean nobody was hiring anyone [in 2009], and so there was kind of this isolation.”

With a wife and three children, one of whom is autistic and non-verbal (like my daughter), Landis felt the weight of the world. Yet, he was never one to stand still. As he stated in a video piece, “I can’t imagine how anybody passes a problem that they know that they can fix and doesn’t try to fix it.” Roger that! I can testify that that is how soldiers and cops are a lot alike; they’re in the game to patch things up for others, and both occupations know that that may engender self-sacrifice.

So, Landis finds himself seeking resolve. In my neck of the woods, he enrolls in the Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida, finding it, as he says, “therapeutic.” Yet his yearning for more was like a bronco trying to break free of a cubicle. Pulling at his heartstrings was the inclination to do something more for his autistic and non-verbal son. ““I thought, you know, I’m very interested in computers and electronics, I’ll see if I can get into something rehabilitation engineering-wise that would lead to working for people like that,” Landis told The Pitt News.

Searching the words “rehabilitation engineering” led him to the first name in the search results: Rory Cooper, a military veteran and professional engineer who leads the Human Engineering Research Laboratory (HERL) in Pittsburgh. Both Cooper and Landis got in touch and exchanged emails, feeling each other out, exploring like-minded engineering principles in the specific area of designing technology which makes life easier for those with disabilities. Cooper happens to ambulate via wheelchair, a mainstay vessel HERL works on continuously.

“So I emailed him back and said, ‘Even better, why don’t I transfer to the University of Pittsburgh and study under you?’ I came up here and visited with him, and I was sold immediately,” Landis shared with the media.

In his video produced by Google’s docuseries “Search On,” Landis poignantly describes his post-military struggles with TBI, his love for mathematics, and his burning desire to continue to serve. Wrap them all in one package and you have a guy who strives to better the lives of others…and pieces together a blueprint to accomplish that feat.

Realizing his knack for working with numbers and complex numerical problems was no longer optimal since TBI stole some of his computational prowess, he did what every soldier does: he started at basic training. As Landis describes it, he reconciled by revisiting elementary math principles and pushing forward from there, achieving ample computational skills to engineer marvels in technological gadgetry to better the lives of those with disabilities, as showcased in the following YouTube short video:

There was never a moment when I thought I’d never be a policeman. I thoroughly enjoyed my career, but recurring cancer ultimately derailed that American dream. My floor dropped out, and I had no back-up plan. Never thought about being anything other than a cop. Akin to the life journey experienced by Landis: the blast that changed his military career, the cancer which took his mother, his autistic son, his TBI disability causing struggles, the responsibilities of a husband and father staring him in the face…seem insurmountable, until the choice to push through is activated, like a mission or field op. I, too, attended art school and found that acquisition to be therapeutic; still do.

My daughter’s autism worsened, deteriorating deeply enough to where she was institutionalized. As Landis related about his autistic son, it is hard to imagine what my little girl is thinking while not possessing the ability to express herself. Neuro-theories claim that is why she is severely self-injurious: lack of fundamental communication boils frustration which culminates in self-hitting. Like any other cop, helping provide answers, resources, and resolution never wanes, even in retirement. I study self-injurious behaviors (SIBs) like a basement scientist hoping to cross the threshold and locking in that eureka moment. The day will come, and many service providers will excite by not surrendering to naysayers who see it as a lost cause.

Landis intimated he is hopeful he will someday get to talk with his son. I share that sentiment with regards to my daughter, quite ill lately, and hospitalized more frequently than ever. Also like Landis (even though I am no where in his league of math skills and/or engineering proficiency), I concentrate on devices made for special-needs kids, aids which could use a boost in design and integrity such as protective headgear/mitts, bedding to sustain inexplicable and uncontrollable tantrums, anything uniquely manufactured to make every minute less stressful. I do a ton of jury-rigging.

Service is not done until the Good Lord says so. As Landis put it, “‘Thank you for your service’ is something you say to a retiree. I’ve still got something to offer, work to do. Thank me in 30 years, when my body of work is done.” I can appreciate his way of thinking.

I enjoy discussing our laws with folks who are rather unclear on the subject matter, especially when they get a ticket or subpoena or ask this or that…for a friend. The misperceptions about statutes abound and sometimes have polar interpretations which some people refuse to shake, despite real-life examples provided them. They get and stay stuck.

Quora published a general string of things retired cops do to remain in service: “>Many officers may opt to remain working in a part time position in the same agency performing duties such as back ground investigations for new applicants, working cold cases, continuing with asset forfeiture investigations, or training at their former agency or at a college, university or police academy. Many retiree are recruited to work in private security.”

Teaching in-service courses at police department training rooms as well as at the police academy is common in my experience. Some work at the courthouse as bailiffs. Others start their own business, usually with some extension of law enforcement such as private investigations. Some remain sworn minus working a beat; they investigate for the county prosecutor’s office. I spoke with a retired Florida cop recently who, out of the blue, called me to tell me an old case of mine was actually destined for trial. He was updating the contact information so as to ensure I received a subpoena and so that I can freshen my memory and dig up old records/reports/notepads (far corner of the garage, fourth box down). FTOs said I’d some day need ’em, and they were right.

I enjoyed that phone call. It catered me way back in time, when I was in court or on stand-by to testify in cases which have not yet been dispositioned by alternate means (plea agreements or, God forbid, guilty pleas). It jolted me and reminded me that being a police officer can be a lifelong thing, as is being in service, the way a law enforcement career conditions us in the rituals of being there for others when the sounding shriek disturbs peace and silence.

“When you’re in the Army, you’re responsible for other people’s lives, you’re responsible for your equipment and you’ve got all this responsibility that gets you up every day and moving toward the mission of success that you’re always trying to push for,” Landis explained. Same is true for cops, as explained above.

As recent discussions go, one of the answers to our series of tragedies at schools and mayhem inflicted by active shooters is employing retired cops on campuses. In Florida’s School Public Safety Act enacted in March 2018, retired cops are applying for the School Guardian Program: “A School Guardian is a volunteer who has no authority to act in any law enforcement capacity except to the extent necessary to prevent or abate an active assailant incident on the school premises. The sheriff [in each of the 67 counties] has the authority to appoint school guardians, without the power of arrest, if they meet all the requirements.” The Act allocated $67 million for that, and a retired police colleague of mine is already employed as one.

Some police colleagues are glad to be away from law enforcement while others eagerly await getting out. Though that doesn’t mean they won’t stand up when they hear a cry for help or witness an injustice right before their eyes. I want back in, but circumstances largely preclude the notion.

Now more than ever, service is needed, even for those protesting the cops…until the day arrives when they need one. Like Landis said, “I feel an absolute obligation to serve.” Thankfully, so very many do.

The opinions expressed here by contributors are their own and are not the view of OpsLens which seeks to provide a platform for experience-driven commentary on today's trending headlines in the U.S. and around the world. Have a different opinion or something more to add on this topic? Contact us for guidelines on submitting your own experience-driven commentary.
Stephen Owsinski

Stephen Owsinski is an OpsLens Content Manager and Contributor. Owsinski is a retired law enforcement officer whose career included assignments in the Uniformed Patrol Division and Field Training Officer (FTO) unit. He is currently a researcher and writer. Follow Stephen on Twitter @uniformblue.

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