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Living to Serve

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A passion for service and open source tech is helping a veteran build a more inclusive world.

For Matt Landis, the definition of a veteran is more than “someone who used to be a soldier.” Now working to give his autistic son and others a chance to live more independently, Matt is proving that a veteran is someone who never stops serving others.

“You get people coming up and thanking you for your service,” Matt, 39, says with obvious discomfort. “You get people calling you a hero and those kinds of things.”

Like a lot of vets, the former Apache pilot does not think of himself as a hero. Returning from two tours in Iraq, Matt struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a traumatic brain injury, and the unease of no longer being a part of a larger mission. He’d lost his purpose.

When he learned about a Saturday service event with The Mission Continues, a group of military veteran volunteers, he jumped at the chance to pitch in. “I just missed soldiers, you know? I hadn’t known hardly anybody that was military or a veteran since I had left the service, and I had sort of gotten isolated.”

Hoping the event would be a cure for isolation, Matt found it actually fulfilled a deeper need to be of service. Almost overnight, his definition of veteran crystalized: a veteran has to serve. And this realization gave Matt a new mission in life – one that started at home.

Now Matt collaborates with The Mission Continues, a veterans group dedicated to helping local communities with service projects, like improving sports facilities with Mubarik “Coach Mu” Ismaeli in the Homewood neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

matt-landis-postwar-service

Now Matt collaborates with The Mission Continues, a veterans group dedicated to helping local communities with service projects, like improving sports facilities with Mubarik “Coach Mu” Ismaeli in the Homewood neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

Meet Mubarik “Coach Mu” Ismaeli

Working with veteran volunteers renewed Matt’s commitment to service. But it would take family, friends, and a powerful mentor to reveal just how much he could do.

“All three of my children have a disability,” Matt says, “and I can see that it’s such a little part of them, but it ends up having a disproportionate role in their lives.” With three children on the autism spectrum, the Landis family has faced – and met – the challenges of disability in an able-oriented world. But because 15-year-old Tristan Landis is nonverbal and struggles with independent tasks, they’ve had to adapt.

“We definitely have had a lot of hiccups, a lot of ups and downs,” says Matt’s wife, Tiff. But she believes every challenge makes them closer, that the family’s perseverance itself has been a wonderful thing for the kids to witness. “Our priority is us,” she says. Adaptation is a Landis family value, helping one another, moving forward together.

“We definitely have had a lot of hiccups, a lot of ups and downs,” says Matt’s wife, Tiff. But she believes every challenge makes them closer, that the family’s perseverance itself has been a wonderful thing for the kids to witness. “Our priority is us,” she says. Adaptation is a Landis family value, helping one another, moving forward together.

When they go out, Matt and Tristan hold hands and avoid loud noises and crowds. Matt can sense degrees of distress in his son’s behaviors, his flapping arms, even in the pace and depth of his breathing. He helps Tristan cope. He helps him brush his teeth and dress and eat.

But what he can’t do with Tristan is have a conversation.

explore matt’s biggest inspirations: his family, friends, and mentor.

That’s something I think about every day: Will I ever be able to talk to my son? That’s why I became an engineer. Because I’m not going to wait for someone else to solve the problem.

Matt Landis

Matt and Tiff fell in love on the Fourth of July almost 20 years ago. Three kids and two tours later, they are more than spouses – they work together not only to support their family but to contribute to their larger community in Pittsburgh as well.

I feel like sometimes I would float away, like I would literally just float off into space like a balloon, if she weren’t holding the strings and keeping me tied down.

Matt Landis

Matt and Tiff posing for a picture in the water.
Matt and his friend Jess Burkman in the MeBot wheelchair at the Human Engineering Research Lab (HERL).

Through the Landis family’s friendship with Jess Burkman, they’ve seen her overcome the challenges of her disability – which only inspires Matt to find more ways for people with disabilities to contribute to their fullest.

Jess is a mechanical engineer, a brilliant, brilliant woman. I love her handle: Down With Your Pity.

Matt Landis

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Matt walks with his mentor and boss, Dr. Rory Cooper, at HERL.
Dr. Rory Cooper at HERL.

Dr. Rory Cooper is the head of the Human Engineering Research Laboratories, where Matt now works and where he interned while earning his engineering degree. Dr. Cooper mentored Matt, advising him on study areas that could help Tristan.

He’s the Einstein…the Stephen Hawking of the rehabilitation engineering world.

Matt Landis

Matt wasn’t going to wait around for someone else to develop technologies to help people living with disabilities live a more independent life – he would have a hand in developing them.

Pittsburgh’s Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL) is the premiere assistive technology lab in the country. Matt was drawn almost instinctively to the community of engineers, interns, students, and researchers led by Dr. Cooper – many of whom live with disabilities or have a military background. HERL became a new headquarters for Matt, defined by a very special kind of service: building groundbreaking assistive technologies for as many people as possible.

To watch Matt and the team work on a piece of hardware is to witness a constant quest to imagine every kind of obstacle a person living with a disability might face – and make it disappear. Wheelchairs that can surmount curbs cannot dump their riders. A robotic hand that can open a door or flip a light switch must be controllable with a fingertip. A powerful arm that can transfer a person out of a wheelchair in a variety of circumstances, reducing the demands on caretakers as well as providing more independence for the user.

Video of robotic arm grabbing a green apple.

We're not trying to attain accessibility, we're trying to attain inclusivity.

Matt Landis

Every solution pioneered at HERL is designed to go beyond wheelchair-ramp accessibility. Tools that truly respect human independence and dignity must be versatile and robust enough for everyday life. This philosophy defines everything HERL does – and how it does it. From the software programmers writing in Android’s open source code to the hardware engineers to prototype testers, all the people working at HERL are challenged to build technologies that can work for anyone.

For Matt, the definition of a veteran is more than “someone who used to be a soldier.” A veteran is someone who still has so much to give.

“It was always a tough thing for me and it took me a while to figure out the…you know, how to respond to ‘Thank you for your service’ or any of those kinds of things,” he says. But since moving to Pittsburgh, Matt has learned how to respond when people thank him for his service: with an invitation.

“Join me,” he tells them. “Come out and serve with me. You want to talk about service or appreciate us, then come out and do it with us because we desperately need you. We need the people to come out and be willing to fight alongside us to make the changes that we want to see in our community and be a part of it,” he says.

“And then, of course, so many people do.”

Learn more about The Mission Continues and donate here.

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