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VA Researchers Who Served: Dr. Kiersten Downs

James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital

March 7, 2018

Dr. Kiersten Downs is a health services researcher with VA's Center of Innovation on Disability and Rehabilitation Research in Tampa.
Dr. Kiersten Downs is a health services researcher with VA's Center of Innovation on Disability and Rehabilitation Research in Tampa.

Dr. Kiersten Downs is a health services researcher with VA's Center of Innovation on Disability and Rehabilitation Research in Tampa.

Dr. Kiersten Downs is a health services researcher with the Center of Innovation on Disability and Rehabilitation Research at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa, Florida. She works on studies and program evaluations on Veterans’ experiences with reintegration into civilian life after leaving the military. She has a doctorate in applied anthropology—which uses theories, methods, and customs of people and cultures to solve human problems—and hopes to become a primary VA investigator. She served as a bomb loader for four years in the U.S. Air Force and spent four more years as an administrative assistant in a fighter jet squadron in the New York Air National Guard. She was deployed overseas three times, including once to Iraq.

What drove you to military service?

I grew up in a rural town in northeastern Pennsylvania. Like many of my friends, I joined the military after high school. At that time, I saw the military as a possible path to upward mobility and a way out of small town America. Before I left for boot camp, my grandfather, a World War II veteran, gave me the pewter bracelet he received after completing flight school. He served as an engineer on a B-17 bomber and was shot down over the former Yugoslavia. As he hugged me goodbye, he said, “Remember that nobody wins in war. The world is a dangerous place.” A few months later, the events of 9-11 took place. This was the start to the era that would define my military service and ultimately my research career.

What inspired your research career?

In short, my research career was influenced by my personal experience as a woman service member, my education in the social sciences, and my work experience as a U.S. congressional staffer researching VA policies. I joined the military at an early age and dedicated more than eight years of my life to the institution. After graduating from Binghamton University-State University of New York with my bachelor’s in political science, I worked as a congressional staffer running the casework operation in New York’s 22nd congressional district. In this position, I observed a lot of negative policy outcomes and felt limited in what I could do to help the Veterans I was meeting. Wanting to learn more about military and Veteran policy motivated me to apply for my doctorate degree in applied anthropology at the University of South Florida. I graduated with my doctorate last year. My dissertation was a feminist analysis of the transition of women Veterans from military service to civilian life.

Did you have mentors who inspired you in life, the military, or your research career?

Mentorship is a critical component to integration after military service and ultimately to lifetime achievement. The mentors that continue to inspire me aside from the amazing people I am fortunate to call family are scholars and feminist anthropologists that I found in books like Catherine Lutz, Cynthia Enloe, Ken MacLeish, Sherry Ortner, Dana-Ain Davis, and Christa Craven. Also, as I set out on a path to become a VA researcher, I feverishly consumed the work of VA anthropologists like Erin Finley, Sarah Ono, and Ann Cheney. These incredible women made me realize that there is a place for the kind of work I want to do in VA.

Downs served in the Air Force as a bomb loader on a B-1 Lancer.
Downs served in the Air Force as a bomb loader on a B-1 Lancer.

Downs served in the Air Force as a bomb loader on a B-1 Lancer.

When and where did you serve in the military? Describe your military experience.

I served in a male-dominated career field as a bomb loader on a B-1 Lancer. We loaded primarily JDAMs [Joint Direct Attack Munitions] that were 2,000 pounds and Mk82s that were 500 pounds. My first duty station was at Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene, Texas. Working on the B-1 took me to a couple of fun and interesting deployments to places I would likely have never visited otherwise. In the early days of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we flew long-range bombers off island-nations like Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean and the U.S. territory of Guam. Deployments come with their ups and downs. But I consider myself lucky. I was sent to some of the most beautiful places in the world. As my four-year active duty enlistment started to wind down, I decided to go to college. I transferred into the New York Air National Guard and was accepted to college. During my junior year, I was deployed to Iraq. This was at a time when there were still little to no programs and services for student Veterans on campus. Knowing this, I eventually became involved with the organization Student Veterans of America, where I’ve been an active member since 2012 and now serve on the board of directors.

What kinds of research are you involved in? How does it potentially impact Veterans?

As a health services researcher at the Tampa VA, I work closely with many community organizations. I recognize that more times than not, it is these organizations that reach Veterans before they come to VA for their care. Additionally, community organizations may have more consistent contact with Veterans who have had a questionable experience with VA. This may result in a loss of trust and often deters them from coming back. Aside from data collection and analysis, an integral part of my work is community coalition building. I believe that strengthening community partnerships is a key component to building a better VA, thus making sure that Veterans, their families, and caregivers have access to a holistic range of services and programs that meet their needs.

Did your military experience inspire you to pursue a career as a VA researcher? Is your military experience connected in some way to your VA research?

My military experience is absolutely connected to my VA research. Since I’m a Veteran who has used many VA services, I have a close relationship with the institution. The perspective that I bring to the Center of Innovation on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (CINDRR) is also different from many of my colleagues. Had it not been for my military experience, I can’t say this is the road I would have taken. However, I am very grateful this is where I ended up.

How do you feel about the possibility of making life better for Veterans through your research?

Making life better for people is why I am an anthropologist focused on community-engaged research. Making life better for Veterans is why I aspired to work for VA. One of my favorite programs with VA research is our Veteran Engagement in Research initiative. At CINDRR, I helped implement our Veteran Engagement Council, which consists of a volunteer group of Veterans, caregivers, and family members. They come together monthly, listen to research investigator presentations, and share their experiences and provide feedback. This feedback can be incorporated into ongoing or developing projects. As VA researchers, we have an ethical obligation to listen to and learn from the population we are studying.

Does being a Veteran give you a greater emotional tie to the work you’re doing or more insight into Veterans’ needs?

Being a Veteran gives me an emotional tie to my work. Even though all of our experiences are different, I hear bits and pieces of my own story in the stories of those I interview. As for insight, I think I bring a valuable perspective to the table because I am a Veteran and am actively involved in the Veteran community both locally and nationally. However, as a researcher it is important for me to acknowledge my own biases and to approach every project and participant with an open and empathetic mind. Veterans are human beings with diverse needs and experiences. I have insight, but I am gaining significant insight through every interaction I have with a Veteran or community member.

Based on your life experiences to date, what do you believe are the keys to success? What motivational tips would you share?

Building bridges with a diverse community of people and sharing knowledge outside of academic circles is very important to my model of success. For our work to impact the community, I feel taking a public approach to the production of knowledge is critical. The Veteran Engagement Council is one way we can do this as VA researchers. Additionally, I have a personal advisory board that I interact with often for mentorship. I’ve realized over the years that personal and professional growth happens when I stretch outside of what I am good at or outside of where I am most comfortable. Lastly, I make time to read and exercise. Apps that block social media are a brilliant development.

What’s the next step for you in your VA career?

It’s still very early in my research career. I am working hard to get publications out from my dissertation. In addition to my research duties, I’m trying to build relationships with experts in health equity and access to care for minority Veterans, as well as in complementary and integrative health.

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