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Physical therapy specialist’s thirst for improvement helps others heal

Spc. Joelle Pamplona, physical therapy specialist, provides joint mobilization treatment on a patient at Madigan Army Medical Center on Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Photo credit: Spc. Joelle Pamplona

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WASHINGTON - Each day Spc. Joelle Pamplona, a physical therapy specialist, heads into the Madigan Army Medical Center on Joint Base Lewis-McChord to help veterans, soldiers and their families heal.

Being able to make a difference in their recovery is what drives him.

"It's the reason I picked this job," he said. "It makes my day every time knowing that I helped someone and that now they are living their best life again."

Growing up in Southern California, Pamplona was an active kid. He was into athletics and martial arts.

While watching the popular animated series Naruto, he became drawn to one of the characters, Rock Lee, who lacked the talent of others but was able to keep up by training extremely hard.

"This inspired me as a kid to get strong and always improve," he said.

He started doing pushups, sit-ups and running to increase his strength and endurance. As he got older, he turned to weightlifting and then powerlifting to push himself harder. While in college in 2018, he broke the state squatting record for his weight class during a powerlifting competition.

The constant training and repetitive heavy lifting took a toll on his body as the injuries mounted. He dealt with foot, ankle, knee and back pain.

"I've had it all," he said. "When you're younger you have a little bit of an ego, and you just need to outlift everybody. It doesn't always work out well, and sometimes you have to learn from your mistakes."

He did just that. He researched how to improve his form, how to prevent injury and how to heal himself. He also started changing his workouts to increase flexibility and mobility. With his ability to transform his own body, others in school started to take notice and began coming to him for advice. He enjoyed coaching them and helping them bounce back from injury.

This love of movement, physical activity and helping others fueled him as he graduated with a bachelor's degree in kinesiology from California State University, Fullerton in 2020.

The timing was not on his side as the coronavirus pandemic hit, limiting his ability to get the hours and experience he needed for a physical therapy specialist position.

He turned his attention to the military and contacted an Army recruiter. The Army offers more than 200 ways to serve as a solider, including careers in science, cybersecurity, combat forces, aviation, law and medicine.

The recruiter told Pamplona that nothing was available in his desired field at the time, and he would keep him in mind if anything popped up.

Sure enough, a few months later the recruiter called and asked if he was still interested.

"I was like, ‘Heck yea,'" he said emphatically. "I always wanted to join the military. I always looked up to people who served the country. Being able to put on the uniform gives me a lot of pride."

He enlisted in 2021 as a physical therapy specialist and went to basic training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma before heading to Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston for job training.

The course was challenging as he juggled studying, staying fit and being a soldier. Time management became a key to making sure he didn't burn himself out.

Finding enough hours in the day to complete his work might have been a struggle but comradery with his classmates was not.

"We became like brothers and sisters," he said. "I still talk to them almost every day."

Following his completion of phase two of physical therapy training at Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii, he was assigned to his first duty station at Madigan Army Medical Center last year.

There, he's been able to help veterans, soldiers and their families recover from injury. He's even helped several of them rehab following surgery to repair Achilles tendon tears.

This time has allowed him to grow close to many of his patients.

"You build a lot of great relationships in this field," he said. "You spend so much time with them, and they are in such a vulnerable state. They put a lot of trust in you and in the process to get them better."

The rehab can be slow at times, but Pamplona says patients get energized as they start to make progress. This is an important step for them physically and mentally.

"Getting back your life is critical," he said. "It's critical to your mental health and it's critical to your well-being."

In just a few short years, Pamplona has used his drive to improve and help others to become the soldier everyone on post knows for helping them recover.

"(Joining the Army has) been better than I thought it'd be," he said. "Just the opportunities it's given me and the friends it's given me. I think I got placed in a great situation."

Pamplona is scheduled to be promoted to sergeant next month.

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