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Supporting Those Who Serve: Recognizing the Accomplishments of Dr. Nathan Ainspan

By Erin A. Moeser-Whittle, Alice Sylvester, and Nicholas Droste

Dr. Nathan Ainspan, a Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) Fellow, did not start out his career with the goal of helping veterans, but more than 20 years later, he is one of the most well-respected professionals in the field of military research psychology.

Dr. Ainspan, Senior Research Psychologist for the Department of Defense (DoD) Military-Civilian Transition Office (MCTO) and DoD’s designated liaison to SIOP for the organization’s work on veteran employment issues, was recently awarded the 2020 Theodore Roosevelt Government Leadership Award – or a Teddy Award – in the Defenders Category. 

This category “honors those individuals who have stood out in the effort to protect the United States and have demonstrated sustained achievement in advancing the country’s security interests at home and abroad.”

To double the excitement of the award, the day he learned he was to receive a Teddy award, he also received news that he was selected to be honored with the American Psychological Association (APA) Meritorious Research Service Commendation. The commendation recognizes “individuals who have made outstanding contributions to psychological science through their service as employees of government bodies (federal, state or local) or other organizations.” Dr. Ainspan is the first Department of Defense (not associated with a specific Branch of Service) employee to earn this honor.

When asked how he got his start in working with transitioning veterans, Dr. Ainspan credits his mentor, Dr. Walter Penk, who also happens to be the individual who nominated him for the APA commendation. Dr. Ainspan started his career at the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) and was putting together a panel for the 2006 SIOP conference when he was introduced to Dr. Penk. Penk, a well-known clinician who supported the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) with his research on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), agreed to participate in the SIOP panel and introduced Dr. Ainspan to his research on the psychosocial benefits of employment for wounded warriors and veterans with psychological disabilities.

Dr. Ainspan became interested in this line of research and began applying his I-O perspective to Dr. Penk’s clinical work on wounded warriors to focus on the psychosocial benefits of employment for all veterans. He was also able to use I-O psychology’s literature and approaches to educate organizations on the benefits and the return-on-investment (ROI) of hiring veterans. After that first SIOP panel, Drs. Ainspan and Penk collaborated on three books, dozens of articles, and presented numerous symposiums and Continuing Education (CE) classes at subsequent SIOP and American Psychological Association (APA) conferences.

In 2013, on the recommendation of another I-O psychologist working at the Military Civilian Transition Office (MCTO), he applied for the Research Psychologist position with the agency. Over 7 years later, Dr. Ainspan still supports the MCTO team, helping approximately 200,000 transitioning service members each year – over 1.4 million veterans to date.

In the early years of working with the military and veteran population, Dr. Ainspan felt a bit awkward, as he had never served in the military, and had no family military connection.

“I wasn’t sure if service members would fully trust me because of my lack of experience in uniform, but I quickly learned that my efforts to assist them, along with empathy and my understanding of the research, and interest to help make the transition to civilian employment as smooth as possible was greatly appreciated, and that I had the respect of those I sought to help,” he said.

Ainspan notes that one major issue impacting the military-civilian transition process is the perceived divide between the civilian and military populations and the many misperceptions that many civilian hiring managers and business leaders may have about veterans. But, Dr. Ainspan notes that this is one area where I-O psychologists are uniquely qualified to help since they can draw upon the language of business and the psychological research to advise leaders in civilian organizations to focus on the knowledge, skills, abilities and other transferable traits that veterans bring to a civilian workforce, as opposed to hiring solely for the intent or appearance of being patriotic. 

He adds: “Some of the biggest issues that can negatively impact the civilian employment of military veterans are cultural clashes in the workplace, understanding the transferability of skills between occupations, and cases of poor person/job/occupation/organization fits. These are all in I-O’s lane and ones where we have the training, knowledge, and science to engage as scientists/practitioners to engage with civilian business leaders to help address issues of national importance.”

He also urges organizations and leaders to be sincere when interacting with veterans. When asked what advice he would give to I-O students or professionals who are interested in working with the military/veteran population, he suggests to start by volunteering with a veterans service organization, participating in veterans outreach programs at school or work, and looking for positions not only with the government, but also with defense contractors and Federally Funded Research and Development Centers. Additionally, he suggested getting involved with SIOP’s Military and Veterans Initiative Task Force (which he started in 2012), as well as the Society for Military Psychology (APA Division 19).   

Although Dr. Ainspan does not have uniformed service experience, he has provided years of valuable service to the country through his work with transitioning veterans.

He concluded on a personal note, “My family is Jewish, and originally from Eastern Europe. The American military prevented the extinction of my family during World War II. I am grateful for what this nation and its military did for me. Given that military proclivity is seen to run in families, I am honored that this grandson of the Jews fleeing Hitler with their lives can assist the current generation of military members who frequently are the children and grandchildren of World War II veterans and I can help those who helped not only my family, but countless others before, during, and after that time.”

Congratulations, Dr. Ainspan, on your significant achievements and support for transitioning service members, veterans, and their families.

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