When the Twin Towers were struck by terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001, Alan Peterson was sent to New York City on his first career deployment, tasked with leading the behavioral health teams working with survivors and first responders, and assisting people identifying human remains.
Peterson, a clinical psychologist, then was deployed to Iraq, where he began documenting the effectiveness of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) treatments on military personnel. It marked the beginning of his journey to becoming the nation’s foremost research leader in the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of combat-related PTSD and related conditions in active-duty military personnel and veterans.
On Thursday, Peterson will accept the 2018 BioMed SA Award for Innovation in Healthcare and Bioscience for his role as creator and director of the South Texas Research Organizational Network Guiding Studies and Resilience (STRONG STAR) consortium at UT Health San Antonio and the Consortium to Alleviate PTSD, the world’s largest research groups studying combat-related PTSD.
“Soon after 9/11 happened we became aware that there were major problems with service member PTSD primarily related to blast exposures that resulted in lots of carnage, a lot of people killed and seriously injured, and children injured in the war zone,” Peterson said.
“I had to do something right away that was fairly impactful, and I knew I had to treat it as effectively as possible for the ones who wanted to stay in the fight,” so doing more population research was necessary.
Upon retiring from active duty in 2005 following 21 years of military service, Peterson, now 60, joined UT Health San Antonio as a civilian academic medical center investigator. In June 2018, the University of Texas System officially approved STRONG STAR as an organized research unit. Peterson also championed a proposal to establish the National Center for Warrior Resiliency, which became effective in September 2017.
In assembling STRONG STAR, Peterson tapped more than 150 collaborating investigators from more than 40 military, veteran, and civilian institutions to form the nation’s only research group that conducts large-scale mental health research in military settings. The consortium oversees more than 50 research projects throughout the U.S. with over $150 million in research funding.
With a number of seminal studies completed or nearing completion, the STRONG STAR network has advanced the quality of mental health care for service members and influenced policy changes that the U.S. Department of Defense implemented as a direct result of this work, according to experts in the field.
Looking into both long- and short-term treatments for PTSD, Peterson found that available research was based on civilian populations – primarily female sexual assault survivors. Using the basic core of trauma therapy, which includes re-experiencing the traumatic event and working through it in a form of therapy known as prolonged exposure, Peterson and other researchers successfully adapted prolonged exposure therapy for military personnel and veterans.
“[Peterson] is truly a gentleman, an officer, a researcher, and a clinician of the highest caliber,” said Stacey Young-McCaughan, professor at UT Health San Antonio and principal investigator for STRONG STAR. “He has this inquisitive, scientific mind, and he wants to ask and answer important scientific questions, and he does so while always having participant outcomes in mind.”
The two met while Young-McCaughan was on active duty as an Army Nurse Corps officer at the Wilford Hall Ambulatory Surgical Center in San Antonio, where Peterson was completing a post-graduate internship and fellowship in military clinical psychology. It was at Wilford Hall, Young-McCaughan said, that Peterson began connecting with national leaders in mental health treatment, whom he would later call upon to help augment treatments for use with service members.
“He would invite them to come speak to the students [at Wilford Hall] as a way to meet with people and show them the types of patients we see in the military and get ideas about how things could be done better,” Young-McCaughan said, noting that she retired from the military after 29 years specifically to work with Peterson and STRONG STAR.
Peterson invited Young-McCaughan, whose professional focus had been on cancer and the impact of exercise on patients, to study the use of exercise to enhance prolonged exposure therapy and cognitive behavioral therapies used to treat PTSD.
“He’s a big thinker. He knew that the bottom line is that we need to design trials so that everyone gets the same standard of care, and that we needed to gather more information to refine and come up with much better treatments,” Young-McCaughan said.
One of the veterans Peterson guided through prolonged exposure therapy describes the psychologist as “humble, dedicated, and relentless.”
Don Gagliano was a medical forces commander during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, designing and implementing health care services for the military. But he struggled to cope with difficult memories and emotions, and was referred to STRONG STAR in 2017.
“[Peterson] has insight into the issues of combat-related PTSD, and witnessed some of the events that would be a source of PTSD for others,” Gagliano said.
“I really do think that he isn’t speaking as someone who wants to just get money for a grant to make more research. It’s about trying to solve problems in people and help people solve their problems in an environment where we have little knowledge about the ultimate best way to deal with it.”
Gagliano told the Rivard Report that recalling wartime experiences during some of his sessions with Peterson became so emotionally overwhelming that he wanted to stop treatment.
“I almost walked out of the room and gave up because I was too uncomfortable, but [Peterson] came up to me and said, ‘You have to do this.’” He’s very regimented about the conduct of the protocols so that the data will not be wasted.”
Peterson’s passion for research began during his undergraduate years at the University of Central Florida, when playing baseball led him to join a research study by a professor looking to capture pitching motions.
“I was always interested in asking questions to make sure I’m doing as best as possible, and to assess and address difficulties by gathering more information,” Peterson said.
Peterson cited the influence of his father, a former Air Force fighter pilot, in leading him to join the military and eventually care for its members.
Jennifer Sharpe Potter, professor of psychiatry and vice dean for research in the School of Medicine at UT Health San Antonio, said that Peterson’s “100 percent commitment to the military” is seen in every decision he makes, and his military experience helps him to both “be a great leader and approach his research with a great deal of humility.”
“[Peterson] brought together coalitions of scientists from throughout the U.S. who may not have collaborated otherwise, and convinced these folks that working with the military population was important,” Potter said. “Because of [his] leadership, the nation’s best researchers chose to transport their treatments to test with military service members, completely changing military mental health care.”