Office of Research & Development
Office of Research & Development
Richard L. Roudebush VA Medical Center
May 29, 2019
Dr. John Callaghan, an Army Veteran, is the associate chief of staff for research and development at the Richard L. Roudebush VA Medical Center in Indiana.
Dr. John Callaghan, an Army Veteran, has crafted a career of more than 40 years in internal medicine and clinical pharmacology. Currently, he’s the associate chief of staff for research and development at the Richard L. Roudebush VA Medical Center in Indiana. He focuses on personalized, or precision, medicine. The aspect he’s most concerned with deals with optimizing drugs for patients based on their individual profiles. He’s also an associate professor of medicine and pharmacology-toxicology and the associate dean for VA Research at Indiana University. He held command roles in medical units and military intelligence detachments during his 30-year career in the U.S. Army Reserve and retired as a colonel.
What motivated you to join the military?
I was drafted into the Navy at age 28 in 1971. However, the local draft board in Washington, D.C., rescinded my call-up notice, and the Navy couldn’t decide whether or when it might draft me later. To extract myself from this limbo state, I decided to join some medical colleagues at the 88th ARCOM U.S. Army Reserve hospital in Minnesota. Several years later, upon completion of my specialty training in clinical pharmacology and my doctorate in pharmacology, I joined the Indiana University School of Medicine, while working at Eli Lilly and Company, and the 337th Army Reserve general hospital at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indiana. This was at the height of the Vietnam protests, so I stayed with the 337th and eventually became its commander at the rank of lieutenant colonel. Because of my scientific experience, I was invited to participate in an intelligence role. I served as commander of two military intelligence detachments, until shortly before my retirement from the military.
What inspired your research career?
While I was in medical school at the University of Kentucky, a dynamic professor of pharmacology got me interested in the field pharmacology and drug research. As a physician, I enjoyed the challenges of ethical clinical trial design, collaborations with my basic research colleagues, and caring for volunteers enrolled in clinical drug trials. My experience with these trials convinced me that patients would benefit from biomarkers that could predict and monitor drug response. I also came to recognize the need for pharmacogenetic tools that would identify people who would benefit from the new medication therapies. Drug safety and effective drug treatment are best achieved through personalized medical research and precision health care.
Did you have mentors who inspired you in life, the military, or your research career?
My wife, my daughters, and my parents have been the most influential people in my life. They helped me to become more appreciative of others. My parents sharpened my sense of responsibility and my duty to country, associates, and patients. They helped me frame my life convictions in family and career—both medical and military—and they supported my interest in and dedication to research and education. My father was a role model, especially in his leadership abilities and fairness to others. He was a model of hard work, responsibility, self-motivation, fairness, and support of others. I also had wonderful mentors in medical training, such as the chiefs of pediatric cardiology, pediatric hematologic oncology, and general surgery at the University of Kentucky; in Drs. Robert Wolen and Louis Lemberger during my career with Eli Lilly; and in Drs. Jordan Holtzman and George Sarosi during my VA career. These people motivated me to pursue my interest in clinical pharmacology and drug research.
Dr. John Callaghan had a 30-year career in the U.S. Army Reserve and retired as a colonel.
When and where did you serve in the military? Describe your military experience.
During the Vietnam War, I was a member of the 88th ARCOM hospital in Minnesota and was a member and later a commander of the 337th general hospital at Fort Benjamin Harrison. I commanded military intelligence detachments during the Gulf War and afterward. My active duty assignments were at Fort Detrick in Maryland, the National Ground Intelligence Center in Virginia, and at several medical duty stations around the country, such as Fort Benjamin Harrison, Munson Army Health Center in Kansas, Ireland Army Clinic in Kentucky, Womack Army Medical Center in North Carolina, and Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas.
What kinds of research are you involved in? How does it potentially impact Veterans?
I’m involved in precision medicine research, which calls for finding the right drug and dose for everyone, according to his or her need. The value of this field has been evident with the introduction of new drugs and drug targets in oncology, which deals with the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer, and with the research of Dr. Merrill Benson of Indiana University on a new drug targeted at amyloid peripheral neuropathy, a nerve disorder, and heart disease. I lead the VA Million Veteran Program at the Indianapolis VA. My current research role focuses on supporting local investigators in their search for new treatments or understanding the diseases that are prevalent in the Veteran community. I work with the VA pharmacogenetics subcommittee, which promotes the application of pharmacogenetic testing in VA. My attention is still on safe drug practices aimed at Veterans. I try to provide Veterans with better information about their health and disease management so they can manage their medical situations more effectively.
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 time in the service also taught me the value of comradeship. Due to my military experience, I’ve seen the sacrifices Veterans made and continue to make to support the values of liberty and freedom for our countrymen. My great respect for Veterans was derived from my experiences with troops and Veterans in the VA hospital wards. My military experience has also allowed me to understand the weighty burden of chronic stress and disease on people in our Veteran community. I’m optimistic that investments made in innovative VA research will continue to improve health care delivery, health outcomes, and the quality of life for our Veterans.
Dr. John Callaghan chats with Army Veteran Robert Knight, who served 25 years in the 82nd Airborne Division, as Knight prepares to provide a blood sample as part of his enrollment in VA's Million Veteran Program.
How do you feel about the possibility of making life better for Veterans through your research?
I’m convinced that the Million Veteran Program, which seeks to enroll 1 million Veterans, will lead to important benefits for the Veteran community. This is a project in which Veteran medical conditions can be paired with genetic analyses to better develop new approaches to break down disease structures. I work with motivated and brilliant VA investigators who work every day to deliver cutting-edge science and who drive to achieve scientific breakthroughs. In addition, the Indianapolis VA has investigators who worked with other VA collaborators to provide better strategies to diagnose and manage colorectal cancer risk and to improve stroke outcomes through better comprehensive management. The impact on improved care outcomes for Veterans is also felt by the non-Veteran community.
Does being a Veteran give you a greater emotional tie to the work you’re doing or more insight into Veterans’ needs?
As a Veteran, I believe that my military experience has allowed me to realize the benefits of diversity and the need to respect others who are essential for mission accomplishment. Diversity elicits new ideas for any collaborative project. It sensitizes your understanding of others in a beneficial way. I’ve observed this during my military career. Working to promote diversity in research and the workplace is a priority for improving Veteran health care.
Based on your life experiences to date, what do you believe are the keys to success? What motivational tips would you share?
Persistence and respect are values that are keys to success. You must encourage and have confidence that your team is eager to contribute its ideas and effort to achieve goals that benefit the Veteran community. Supporting a collaborative work environment is a way to ensure that your team members will contribute to each other’s success and generate the satisfaction of a job well-done. Creating a vision for an ideal future state with your team encourages engagement, stimulates innovation that results in success, and provides job satisfaction and personal pride in its realization.
What’s the next step for you in your VA career?
I’ll be stepping down sometime this year as the associate chief of staff for research and development at the Indianapolis VA. I’ll look for opportunities to continue to support research in pharmacogenetics and medical genetics. I’d like to provide support to Veterans and their families, perhaps in relation to germline risks. I hope this support will lead to the prevention of chronic diseases. [Germline mutations are passed on from parents to offspring. They involve a gene change in a body’s reproductive cells that becomes incorporated into the DNA of every cell in the body of the offspring.]