Tillman Tuesdays: Jonathan Lu

Blog, Tillman Tuesdays | 11/02/2021

Welcome back to Tillman Tuesdays, our refreshed weekly feature highlighting the incredible work of our Tillman Scholars. Each week we plan to share the stories of our scholars, giving you an-in depth opportunity to see how their impact makes a difference. 

Dedication to service beyond self is a quality that our Tillman Scholars embody every day; this is no exception for Jonathan Lu. As a first-generation immigrant, Jonathan enlisted in the U.S. Army as a combat medic in 2003. During two deployments in Iraq, Jonathan lamented his lack of training to identify and initially manage behavioral health concerns that his patients often presented in the clinic. Frustrated with attempts to seek behavioral healthcare for his patients while deployed, Jonathan resolved to one day effect needed change and improve care for all soldiers. Today, he balances his active duty service as a special forces team sergeant, pursuing his doctorate in behavioral health from Arizona State University, all while serving as a volunteer firefighter and EMT for his small rural community.

We caught up with Jonathan to find out what inspires his service and how he is able to find balance between his demanding schedule.

What inspired you to get involved with volunteer firefighting?

“I drive by the fire station each day on my way home. It has a large, changeable letter sign that on any given day has various recruitment messages and community announcements. One day, as I was making my way home, the sign prominently announced: ‘Join the fire department. Hard work. No Pay. Cool hat.’

“JFK once remarked that the Green Beret was ‘a symbol of excellence, a badge of courage, a mark of distinction in the fight for freedom.’ Hats are unique in that no other garment can so readily embody the essence of a chosen profession. To me, a firefighter’s helmet, at its core, represented much of what the Green Beret does: By choosing to wear this hat, I am committing to enter an inherently uncomfortable and dangerous situation in the service of others. I joined the fire department because I wanted a cool hat. I stayed because I learned that the cool hat they gave me represented so much more.”

So, beyond the hat, what else inspired you to stay involved and motivated as a volunteer firefighter?

“A cool hat is a cool hat, but the tremendous burden shouldered by first responders was not lost upon me: service to others, the community, and the nation exact a great cost on physical and mental well-being. First responders will exhaust their last ounce of empathy and soul in the service of others; it’s who they are. Unfortunately, burnout and empathy fatigue are strongly associated with worsening health outcomes. First responders take care of the community, but who takes care of the first responders? I volunteer because I recognize the need is too powerful to overlook.”

What experience as an active duty soldier helped motivate you in this work?

“I recently had an opportunity to leverage my military experience in a collaborative effort with my county EMS authority. I volunteered my time and experience studying traumatic brain injury (TBI) in the prehospital setting. After conducting a literature review of current best practices, I was able to make recommendations to update the TBI prehospital protocol utilized by the county’s first responders. The County Medical Program Director’s office also asked me to create a TBI class that incorporated TBI pathophysiology and the current best practices in the prehospital setting. I presented my course in the form of a decentralized voiceover presentation as part of the county’s ongoing training and education program.”

What lessons from military medicine helped you in this effort?

“It is my view that military medicine has historically been on the cutting edge of prehospital care. I’ve observed that the civilian EMS system often adopts best military medicine practices into their own protocols. Through grassroots volunteering, I hope to streamline this process and ensure that civilian EMS systems can benefit from the body of evidence generated by military medicine over two decades of war.”

How do you find balance between your academic, professional and volunteer pursuits?

“My academic research is heavily focused on the vulnerability of certain professions to burnout, empathy fatigue, and workplace stress. There is a commonality in that I academically study in vulnerable populations, I work within a vulnerable population as an active duty Army Green Beret, and I volunteer within the fire service, which is uniquely vulnerable to the very issues I study and experience professionally. There is an inherent balance in what I academically, professionally, and voluntarily do because it all focuses on improving health outcomes among comparatively vulnerable populations. In learning about one, I gain insight on the others.”

How would you summarize the work you’ve done, bringing your passion and academic work to support first responders and the soldiers you work with? 

“I looked to identify occupational exposure risks and developed controls which the department adopted. I implemented a meaningful recognition intervention by regularly showcasing a volunteer’s story and achievements within the community outreach newsletter. I held focus groups on burnout and fatigue. My personal military axiom—care for soldiers and they will accomplish the mission—holds true everywhere. Care for first responders and they will protect the community. In care for them, I serve the whole.”