Friday, September 29, 2017

Engineering the Future: MQ-9 pilot gives back

By Airman 1st Class James Thompson, 432nd Wing Public Affairs

An Air Force pilot was recently recognized for his contributions to the community with the Great Minds in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Hero award, the League of United Latin American Citizens Excellence and Service Award and the Air Combat Command National Public Service Award.

“The Great Minds in STEM organization is a very large Engineering organization for Hispanics and they aim to do a lot of the same things that I am doing in the community, which is to inspire youth, especially underrepresented Latino youth to pursue engineering in math and science professionally and at the university level,” said Capt. Victor, 17th Attack Squadron MQ-9 Reaper pilot.

Victor began his endeavor while he was in high school and has personally mentored hundreds of students. He’s kept up his involvement throughout his time serving and his contributions have spanned across two Air Force duty assignments.

“More recently, the last four years, I have probably individually mentored around 70 or so students and reached dozens more in discussions,” said Victor. “The individual mentorship is really where students succeed. That constant mentorship interaction and leadership can help mold them into the professionals we need for the future.”

He was recently awarded the League of United Latin American Citizens [LULAC] Excellence and Service Award, Air Combat Command’s National Public Service Award and the Great Minds in STEM Hispanic Engineering National Achievement Awards Conference [HENAAC] Military Hero Award for his efforts.

“I went to a title one school and there were a group of people who were in this program called the National Hispanic Institute,” said Victor. “NHI is a national organization and they identify [Hispanic] youth to teach them the basics of speech, debate, mock trials and public speaking and through that teach them the professional skills that will aid them through life.”

Reflecting on the opportunities he had in high school, he wanted to use his own experiences as a lesson for young students who may be having second thoughts about pursuing higher education.

“Whenever I went to college, I was fortunate to be accepted to the Air Force Academy and while there, I saw that we had so many amazing resources at the university and what I wanted more than anything was to share that with the community,” he said.

Although the organization helped shape Victor’s professional development and outlook, the Houston native explained that despite being used to living and working in a drastically diverse environment, his experiences at the academy were culturally limited at the time.

“Whenever I went to college for the first time, I was somewhat aware that I was actually a minority. What I found was that many people weren’t very well versed in the other cultures,” Victor said.

Victor explained that he, initially, felt as if there were multiple Americas that he was living in, one being the America where people spoke Spanish, watched Spanish television, listened to Spanish music and understood the culture. The other was a place where certain individuals thought the Spanish influence wasn’t even a part of America.

“People thought that I was foreign, but I am sixth generation Texan and my grandfather fought in WWII,” said Victor. “We’ve been in the United States a long time and I think that many different ethnic groups, for whatever reason, have been segregated throughout American history.”

Despite his early experiences, Victor hopes that by targeting the next generation of thinkers and filling the culture gap, he can expand on diversity within the STEM professional fields.

“Victor has definitely pushed me out of my comfort zone by making me apply for scholarships, volunteering and doing things that I wouldn’t normally do,” said Chiara Crawford, a student mentor and member of a local robotics team.

Crawford expressed her appreciation for Victor’s involvement with the team and stated that because of him, she is able to expand on her personality and character.

“I’m very grateful to them [Victor and other team leads] because, I don’t think we would’ve been where we are without them,” said Crawford.

Victor enjoys keeping in touch with previous students and observing their future impact with their STEM related occupations.

“My students have been fought over by colleges who continuously throw money at them to entice them to choose their school over a rival,” Victor said. “They’ve been recruited to places like MIT. The first ones I mentored have gone on to start their careers in internships. Some are looking to serve in the military and others will be engineering our energy needs for the future.”

Hispanic Heritage month concludes on Oct 15, but Victor’s mission is far from over and encourages other to contribute to their community.

Victor said, “What I hope to do whenever I target the [Hispanic] community is to find a way to incorporate their world into the world that I am in, and show them that they can still be proud, they can still be themselves, they can still hold onto their culture and they can still succeed in ways they’ve not seen before.”

Study to Examine Role of Adaptive Sports for Rehabilitation

By Shannon Collins DoD News, Defense Media Activity

TORONTO, Sept. 29, 2017 — Michael Burns, CEO of the Toronto Invictus Games, announced that Invictus, in partnership with the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research, is releasing the preliminary findings of the first-ever research study on the impact of the role of adaptive sports in the rehabilitation of service members and their families.

The study “will provide a platform for evidence-based policy making that will support the further development of sports programs and events for wounded warriors and veterans in Canada and around the world,” Burns said.

‘First of its Kind’ Study

“This study is the first of its kind,” he added. “There’s never before been a comprehensive study of competitive sporting events developed for service members and veterans. The Invictus Games has a mission: to use the power of sports to inspire recovery, support rehabilitation and generate a wider understanding and respect for those who served their countries and loved ones. We’re confident that Dr. Celina Shirazipour’s findings will help us understand whether the Invictus Games are successful in fulfilling that mission and that it will take us across the finish line.”

Burns said the Invictus Games uses the power of sports to inspire recovery, support rehabilitation and broaden awareness of the unique issues that affect people who serve their countries and families.

“We are delivering much more than just a high level sport competition,” he said. “Adaptive sport is also a very effective form of therapy for the soldiers who participate in these games. The games normally have hundreds of competitors who train for months at a very high intensity to push themselves to perform to the limits of their abilities. The games inspire thousands of soldiers and veterans to maintain a positive outlook and to strive to achieve more than what they thought possible.”


Shirazipour is leading a sports psychology study, conducted by Dalhousie University and the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research. The study will explore the role of competitive sport in promoting psychological and social well-being for wounded, ill and injured service members and veterans and their families in the short and long term before and after the Invictus Games.

The research team is interviewing 40 Canadian and international Invictus Games competitors, including the U.S. team and their family members. Competitors will respond to a series of questionnaires about their experiences training for and participating in the games and the long-term effects of the games. The athletes have injuries ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and depression to amputation and spinal-cord or nerve damage.

This research will provide a platform for evidence-based program development and policy making to support the further growth of sport programs and events delivered to wounded, ill and injured service members and veterans.

“The study will also investigate how sport participation may influence service members’ and veterans’ reintegration into, and place in, society,” Shirazipour said.

Transformative Experience

“Sport is a transformative experience,” she said. “That transformation journey can be divided into three parts, training before the games, the games themselves like here in Toronto and life after the games. When the individuals make the team, they’re motivated because they have a team relying on them. That’s that military mentality: ‘I can’t let my team down.’ The transformation starts because they have to leave their house, find a coach, learn to train and get on a team.”

Shirazipour said the games also give competitors, especially those from countries that don’t support their military, the chance to be celebrated and recognized.

“People are like, ‘They actually came to see me participate and see my recovery and do my sport?’ It’s really intangible,” she said.

Shirazipour also said that giving the competitors a chance to represent their countries again gives them a sense of self identity and a return to service.

“There are a lot of key elements to learn from the initial study,” she said. “Some of these are the value of friends and family and having competitors set goals. Invictus can provide a transformative experience; this motivation to continue and to contain one’s psychological and social well-being.”

Army veteran Will Reynolds competed for the U.S. at the Invictus Games in 2014 in London, in 2016 in Orlando and this year in Toronto. He has also competed at the Department of Defense Warrior Games over the years and earned several medals in track and field and cycling. He is an above-the-knee amputee.

“Research is important because it helps bring the support and funding,” Reynolds said. “If we can in an empirical way show that this is helping people, which we know it is, we see all the great success stories that come out of this. It’s only going to help build the support behind it so every country’s equivalent to Veterans Affairs and Military Health can keep putting a lot of support behind it because it is that impactful on the whole population.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs holds six national clinics a year, including winter and summer sports clinics, Reynolds said. “They’ve been doing it for decades,” he said. “They see the benefit, and they really want to keep it going for veterans. The Invictus Games is on an even bigger scale because this is international, and it’s for active duty as well, so it’s something else to bolster the programs they already see a lot of benefit in.”

Importance of Invictus

Britain’s Prince Harry said he began the Invictus Games after visiting a warrior care facility when he visitedthe 2013 Warrior Games in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

“I’m hugely passionate about the Invictus Games. I’m passionate about the role support can play in the recovery of the body and the mind,” he said. “I’m passionate about the men and women of our armed forces who have served their countries, and I’m passionate in my support and admiration for the families of them because they, too, have served.”

When he first visited the warrior care facility, the prince said “it was there where I first saw the impact that sport could play in recovering these men and women. I was amazed at seeing the fiercest competition turn into respect, understanding and friendship after the finish line was crossed.”

The prince continued, “I saw people giving their all on the court or in the pool, but then hugging their opponents as brothers-in-arms. Seeing this myself convinced me that we have to enable more wounded, ill and injured service men and women to benefit from the power of competition. And we have to find a way to stage the competition that could attract the attention of the world and inspire millions. The idea of the Invictus Games was born.”

Harry, who served in the British Army for 10 years, including two deployments to Afghanistan, said he knows the journey to the Invictus Games is not an easy one for the competitors.

“People find motivation in many ways but in my mind, there’s no denying the impact that teamwork, competition and fun has,” he said. “The wife of a U.S. competitor thanked me as tears rolled down her face. She said, ‘My husband is on the [American] team and when he’s with the team, I see him smile, a genuine smile. I cry because his smile is something we’ve been missing. Thank you for these games.’”

“We believe that the games have made a real difference,” the prince said. “Competitors, friends and their families told us that the games were not only changing lives but saving lives. Sport, of course, is not the only answer, but it is a powerful tool.”

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Virtual Reality Helps Veterans Prepare For New Jobs

By Joyce M. Conant, ARL and Sara Preto, ICT

The U.S. Army Research Laboratory and its partners recently developed a new way for veterans to seek employment.

The Virtual Training Agent for Veterans, or VITA4VETS, is a virtual simulation practice system designed to build job interviewing competence and confidence, while reducing anxiety. Although Army researchers and developers at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies, and the Dan Marino Foundation originally developed the training system to help those with autism prepare for job interviews, they soon realized its potential to help veterans.

While several companies advertise they hire vets, transitioning from military service life to a civilian workplace can be challenging. One day they are a Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine – then the next day, they are back to being “just a citizen.” The prevalence of militarisms in speech and thought override the ways of conceptualizing the civilian world.

The researchers and developers said they understand returning home can be arduous in itself, but preparing to find employment can be even more taxing.

That’s where they believe VITA4VETS can help improve one’s interviewing skills and instill a sense of discipline.

Juan Gutierrez, a 33-year-old Navy veteran with experience in aviation electronics was satisfied with the new style of interview.

“Answering questions with a virtual human rather than a real human helped me feel less nervous, and I could practice different responses and there were no repercussions with the avatar,” Gutierrez said.

Gutierrez said he had more confidence and the experience was as much an interview for a potential employer as it was for him.

“I learned I could ask questions too. Instead of feeling nervous — like I am being tested, it was a way for me to be honest and learn if it (the job) is something I’d like to do. Overall, VITA helped me feel confident with my interview,” said Gutierrez.

In 2016, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 20.9 million men and women were veterans, accounting for about nine percent of the civilian non-institutional population age 18 and over. Of those 20.9 million, more than 450,000 were unemployed.

The military provides transition training, but when one considers the unemployment statistics and challenges servicemembers face, it underscores the urgency for creating methods to better prepare veterans for civilian employment.

“Although many veterans have the necessary talent and temperament for vocational achievement, they may find it challenging to express the ways in which their skills and experience are able to translate to the private sector,” said Matthew Trimmer, project director for VITA4VETS at USC ICT.

Currently available through U.S. VETS in Los Angeles, VITA4VETS leverages virtual humans that can support a wide-range of interpersonal skill training activities. It uses six characters that span different genders, ages and ethnic backgrounds. Each character is capable of three behavioral dispositions or interview styles and can be placed in a variety of interchangeable background job contexts, all controllable from an interface menu.

According to Trimmer, offering a variety of possible job interview role-play interactions supports practice across a range of challenge levels and allows for customized training geared to the needs of the user. Trimmer also said the approach has been known to produce positive results, indicating increased confidence with practice and high job acquisition rates.

“If focusing on one portion of said issue can provide any support to those that have served us, then it is one step closer to better assisting the overall transition process,” Trimmer said.