Veteran serves and studies in Pittsburgh

Pitt student and veteran  J. Matthew Landis sports his

Pitt student and veteran J. Matthew Landis sports his "The Mission Continues" shirt. Photo courtesy of J. Matthew Landis

By Elli Warsh / Staff Writer

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James Matthew Landis, a Pitt student and veteran with a disability, has always had a hefty sense of responsibility and isn’t ready to relax his helping hands.

He left college to join the Army as a 19-year-old in the ’90s to pay off his mother’s medical bills after she died from cancer. As an Apache helicopter pilot, he was responsible for other people’s lives and for a larger mission that far surpassed any experience he’d had in school. Then, after 10 years of service, the Maryland native suffered a head injury in 2009 that forced him out of the air.

Honorably discharged and on the ground, he thought employers would need someone with his experience — his ability to act under pressure and overcome almost any situation. But with the economy in recession, Landis stayed jobless.

“[Veterans] assume they 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,” Landis said. “And then you get out … I mean nobody was hiring anyone [in 2009], and so there was kind of this isolation.”

So Landis became a non-traditional student — more than 30 years old with a wife and three children. Landis, 36, is now nearing his third finals week as one of more than 500 student veterans at Pitt. He’s found new ways — and new neighborhoods ­— to put his leadership skills to use, befriending other veterans along the way.

In 2010, Landis enrolled in the Ringling College of Art and Design in Florida. He said practicing art was “therapeutic,” but he wanted to do something that would help people like his son, who has a communication disorder, autism spectrum disorder, and is nonverbal.

“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 said.

When Landis searched rehabilitation engineering in 2011, the first name on the list was Rory Cooper, an engineer and veteran who heads the Human Engineering Research Laboratory in Bakery Square in Pittsburgh’s East End.

Cooper founded HER Labs in 1994, where he designs state-of-the-art wheelchair technologies, including the Personal Mobility and Manipulation Appliance — a wheelchair that Popular Science featured in its August 2010 edition.

Cooper said as a veteran, he benefited from the “struggles and triumphs” of older generations. He wanted to work with Landis, who he said he considers a great person, as part of fulfilling an obligation to those who followed in his footsteps.

“I feel that as long as I have the means, it is my obligation to carry on for this and future generations of veterans,” Cooper said. “It is my small way in still serving and paying the support that I received forward.”

Cooper invited Landis to join ELeVATE, a part of HER Labs, that’s meant to draw veterans into the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics and the world of research.

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

After he moved to Pittsburgh in 2012, Landis said he realized he was missing what he calls an “anchor of responsibility.”

“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 said.

He lost that specific sense of purpose when he left the military and focused largely on more personal tasks like paying the bills. That’s when he found The Mission Continues, a program where veterans perform community service like building playgrounds and rehabilitating houses.

Landis is a platoon leader — or group leader — at the program. One of his platoon’s biggest projects currently is rebuilding Stargell Field, the only youth baseball field in Homewood.

Before he became a part of The Mission Continues, Landis said he originally considered joining organizations like the Wounded Warrior Project, a national program for helping soldiers adjust after they return from the war, but said he didn’t feel like the one who needed assistance.

“I didn’t feel like I deserved that kind of attention. I wasn’t so badly disabled. I felt like I was still capable of doing whatever I wanted to do,” Landis said.

Traci Shaner is also a student veteran who served in the National Guard until October 2014 and met Landis when she was an undergraduate at Pitt. She said she’s carried her experience in the National Guard into her education.

“I know what it’s like to wake up in the morning, and your day is already laid out for you by your superiors. In uniform, my mission was to obey and lead,” Shaner said. “These experiences taught me to be humble and respectful to my leaders, but also to be an example for my subordinates.”

Shaner, who is now getting her masters in social work at Pitt, met Landis while working at the University’s Office of Veterans Services.

“Matthew Landis is one of the greatest people I know here at Pitt,” Shaner said. “The veteran community became my very first circle of friends [at the University].”

Landis said the veteran services at Pitt mostly act as a “conduit” for social activities that connect veterans. But he’s found acceptance amongst traditional students as well.

“Most of the uncomfortable situations I’ve faced as a student veteran aren’t particular to Pitt, but are fairly common to veterans returning to school after service,” Landis said. “I’ve felt like the traditional students have been exceptional in making me feel comfortable and included in courses.”

Although he has a good relationship with most students, Landis said it’s sometimes difficult to be in a classroom with them while taking a test.

“Every time I hear pencils scratching, erasers rubbing, someone nervously tapping their foot, it’s like a reset button in my brain,” Landis said. Because his injury makes him unable to filter ambient sound, he takes tests in Pitt’s Testing Center, where he said he wears “obnoxiously large, goofy-looking headphones.”

Landis warns people to stay clear of the “wounded warrior depiction of veterans.” He works hard to overcome his disability and doesn’t expect any favors.

“[We] don’t want pity, help from the school, help from society … we just want a fair shot, and we’re willing to work our asses off to earn it,” Landis said.

He doesn’t want people to shake his hand and thank him for his service because his job isn’t done.

“We want to hear, ‘We still need you.’ It sounds simple, but think about it,” Landis said. “‘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.”

author’s note: a previous version of this article said Matthew Landis served for 18 years in the Army when he actually served for 10. The article has been updated to reflect that change.

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