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VA Researchers Who Served: Dr. Paul King

VA Western New York Healthcare System

September 6, 2019

 Dr. Paul King  with his children.
Dr. Paul King with his children.

Dr. Paul King with his children.

Dr. Paul King, an Army Veteran, is a clinical research psychologist at the VA Center for Integrated Healthcare (CIH), a VA Center of Excellence located at the VA Western New York Healthcare System. He’s also the associate director of the CIH Postdoctoral Fellowship Program. The center’s mission is to enhance Veterans’ health care by improving the integration of mental health services into primary care. In addition to mental health, King focuses on post-deployment health issues and health care use by combat Veterans, cognitive and emotional impacts of deployment on combat Veterans, and the assessment and management of traumatic brain injury, persistent post-concussion symptoms, and PTSD. He has authored more than 25 peer-reviewed papers and is an adjunct assistant professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

What motivated you to join the military?

I started considering military service when I was in high school. Service to others was a value that was instilled in me, and I found that the opportunity to serve my country was a very personally meaningful way of living out that value. Plus, it offered a very real opportunity to challenge myself and an added benefit of financially supporting my education.

What inspired your research career?

I can’t say there was just one inspiration but multiple experiences that became self-reinforcing. Critical thinking was something that was emphasized throughout my education. But in studying social sciences as an undergraduate, I had a number of wonderful professors who relayed the value of actually going out to gather, and then trying to make sense of, real-world data. As I progressed in my graduate training and current position, the inspiration became more about learning to use research data to improve Veterans’ everyday lives in meaningful ways.  

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

I’ve been fortunate to have had many positive influences in my life and career, though my family and a few influential instructors and colleagues deserve special mention. My mother and grandmother were always huge advocates for my education and role models for hard work and humility. My wife, Jill, like many military partners, maintained steadfast support for me during my deployment and does to this day. Of course, I’d be remiss without honoring my undergraduate advisor, Dr. Lisa Brooks; my graduate school mentor, Dr. Jim Donnelly; and my career development award mentorship team, Drs. Laura Wray, Greg Beehler, Kerry Donnelly, and Jen Funderburk, for their ongoing support and the way they challenge me as I continue to grow in my profession. As for military influences, my friends and mates from my engineer squad who I worked with on a daily basis drive me to succeed in my work.

 Dr. Paul King served in Iraq as a combat engineer with the New York Army National Guard.
Dr. Paul King served in Iraq as a combat engineer with the New York Army National Guard.

Dr. Paul King served in Iraq as a combat engineer with the New York Army National Guard.

Describe your military experience.

I enlisted as a combat engineer in the New York Army National Guard while I was in college at the State University of New York at Buffalo and attending Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) classes. My plan at the time was to enlist, complete college and my ROTC courses, and ultimately pursue a commission as an Army officer either on active duty or in the National Guard.

Upon enlisting, I took advantage of a program known as the Split Training Option, or Split-Op, which allowed me to complete Army basic training one summer and advanced individual training the next so I could continue attending college classes in the interim. Following the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, my National Guard unit was activated twice: for a brief time for state active duty, and then to federal active duty from 2003 to 2005 in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

In terms of day-to-day activities as a combat engineer in Iraq, my tasks ranged widely. They included providing aid to Iraqi civilians; building infrastructure on our forward operating base or in the community; and conducting security operations, patrols, and recovery and demolition of weapons caches and explosive ordnance. I separated from the National Guard following my return from active duty.

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

My research program is focused on post-deployment health care, in particular primary care management of some of the major health concerns faced by combat Veterans, including concussions, PTSD, and depression. My current work involves development, modification, and testing of clinical strategies that can be delivered right in primary care clinics to improve the health and well-being of Veterans. The main idea behind this work is basically to address these very common concerns as soon as possible in a highly accessible treatment environment.

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 was the main driver in me pursuing a VA research career. Prior to my deployment, I completed coursework for a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and actually received notice while on active duty that I had been selected to be a police officer. After returning to the United States, my life plan shifted quite a bit. I decided to separate from the service and pursue a different path, setting my sights on working with Veterans in my career. I completed a second undergraduate degree in psychology and applied and was accepted to graduate school. I eventually went on to complete many training experiences in the VA system, including my doctoral internship and a research-intensive postdoctoral fellowship.

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

Improving Veterans’ health is essentially the mission statement for my research and clinical work. It keeps me grounded and motivated. Recent research has shown that many Veterans who sustain a combat-related concussion also experience symptoms of PTSD and depression. Many Veterans have also reported life problems after separating from the military. The chance that my work can help improve Veterans’ recovery experiences following these events compels me.

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

I think it does. There were many wonderful and fulfilling experiences while serving in the National Guard and on active duty. There were also a great many challenges associated with wartime service. While I can’t say that my experience is the same as another person’s experience, I do feel that it gives me a very helpful point of reference in my work and provides a strong motivator to continue doing work that matters to Veterans.  

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

Maintaining a mission orientation, realistic expectations, and a willingness to solve problems will go a long way in this line of work. Having a professional mission will help guide the decisions you make about your research and where to aim your efforts. Understand that success in research is not necessarily a linear trajectory. Not every grant will be funded, the papers you publish will require revisions, and things will occasionally go wrong with your projects. These events go with the territory. Detours and failures are likely. But instead of viewing them as barriers to success, characterize them as opportunities for growth. Learn from your mistakes and continue doing work that’s worth doing. Surround yourself with good colleagues, and they will help raise you up. In turn, be a good colleague to them and help raise them up, too.

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

I am currently completing a VA career development award. This project aims to adapt and begin clinical testing of a skills-focused strategy to improve a Veteran’s recovery following a mild traumatic brain injury. The next step in my career will be to build on this work, first by additional clinical testing and later by investigating ways to implement effective and accessible rehabilitation programs on a wider scale throughout VA.

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