Army veteran Matt Landis has dedicated himself to helping those with physical disabilities after he experienced serious injuries while serving in Iraq — and he says his children, who are on the autism spectrum, have been an inspiration to him throughout the process.
Landis, following in a long line of family members who have served in the military, signed up to join the U.S. Army in 1999. He would serve two tours in Iraq as an Apache Longbow helicopter pilot. But over the course of his tenure, Landis experienced a series of head injuries while playing sports with fellow soldiers and during on active duty. When he experienced a concussion after hitting his head during a hard helicopter landing in Germany, his collection of injuries was enough that doctors told Landis he could no longer pilot, and the news was heartbreaking.
“It was a crushing thing because I think it was the first thing that I had ever failed at,” Landis, a father of three from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, tells PEOPLE. “You invest so much time training and preparing to fight for the people that you’re with, and to be told that you can’t do that anymore feels like you have done something to let them down and feels like something’s broken that has caused you not to be able to serve those people.”
In July 2009, Landis left the military, in part to spend more time with his family, as his middle child, Tristan, was having difficulties in school and around other children.
Being back home highlighted some of the effects those concussions had on Landis. He found himself becoming agitated more frequently during situations where he would normally be the calmest person in the room.
“I’d stop and start having panic attacks and pull over to the side of the road and just wait for that to subside,” he recalls. “And those were kind of the things that told me, ‘Okay, there’s a real problem here.’ “
Because of his love of math, Landis pursued a degree in physics, but it proved to be much more difficult than he expected.
“Math has always been my subject that I just knew how to do it. It was an instinctive, intuitive thing,” Landis says. “And just slowly that had eroded and I wasn’t able to maintain even simple things in my head for any period of time. So I would have to start over frequently on problems that I’ve worked through.”
That’s when he was diagnosed with mild traumatic brain injury, which includes symptoms of memory problems, trouble concentrating, insomnia and fatigue.
“It was a shock to me,” Landis says, “because I hadn’t realized until that moment that it was having that profound of an effect on my ability to do these things.”
Landis went back to the beginning, taking himself through elementary school math and working up, relearning everything he had once known. He eventually enrolled into a computer engineering program at the University of Pittsburgh and excelled as a student. For his work, Landis earned the Google Student Veterans of America scholarship, designated for veterans pursuing university degrees in the field of computer science.
But his experience with disability and seeing how autism affected his three children — Bailey, 17, Tristan, 15, and Brynne, 13 — would lead him to refine his career path going forward. When he learned rehabilitation engineering, a form of engineering focused on improving the quality of life and independence of people with disabilities, Landis felt he had to be a part of it.
“[The technology] puts them on a level playing field and takes away the disadvantages that their disability places on them,” he says. “That’s a big thing with my children, is that their autism is such a tiny part of who they are. But it plays such a disproportionate role that adds a barrier to their ability to accomplish things. So I just wanted to be part of fixing that problem, that injustice.”
Landis has since become an engineer at the Human Engineering Research Lab at the university and is helping to design assistive technology for those who are physically disabled. This includes the Strongarm, which enables an individual to lift themselves to and from a wheelchair, and the Mebot, which allows wheelchairs to climb a curb and rise up to standing eye level.
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As a father, Landis says he is driven to find these solutions for children and parents everywhere.
“Most parents will do anything that they have to knock those barriers down for their children,” he tells PEOPLE. “And for my children, it was a big barrier put up by disability.”
He adds: “My children are the thing that made me realize that this needed to be done for other people’s children, too — not just for my own.”