East Carolina University professor Carmen Russoniello was honored for public service during the monthly meeting of the UNC Board of Governors Oct. 30. Read full story below. (Photo by Cliff Hollis)
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Professor receives Holshouser award for work with veterans, others

For a career dedicated to improving the lives of others, East Carolina University professor Carmen Russoniello has received the 2015 Governor James E. Holshouser, Jr. Award for Excellence in Public Service by the University of North Carolina system.

The annual award recognizes public service by faculty of the 17 UNC institutions. ECU is the only university with three recipients since it was first awarded in 2007.
Carmen Russoniello

“I’m awed by all that Governor Holshouser accomplished as a public servant and truly humbled to be recognized in his honor,” Russoniello said. He accepted the award to a standing ovation Oct. 30 during the monthly Board of Governors’ meeting in Chapel Hill.

Russoniello’s contributions have spanned decades, beginning with his service as a Marine Corps machine-gunner and decorated Vietnam combat veteran. He has since focused on the use of recreation therapy in the form of biofeedback and video games as an alternative to medicine for people with stress-related medical disorders, including veterans and victims of Hurricane Floyd.

“At ECU, we do value service. I’m a clinician, and as a clinician, I’m always looking for ways to help people,” Russoniello said. He has undergraduate and master’s degrees in recreational therapy and interdisciplinary studies from Eastern Washington University and a doctorate in educational leadership from Gonzaga University. He has more than 20 years of clinical experience as a therapist/counselor and works as scientific advisor to Biocom Technologies.

“What I learned through public service is what my mom tried to teach me: that doing for others is expected, and the rewards are the thoughts and feelings that maybe I’ve made as much of a difference in other people’s lives as they’ve made in mine,” Russoniello said. 

At ECU, he is a professor in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies in the College of Health and Human Performance and director of the Center for Applied Psychophysiology. 

Using biofeedback—the ability to view nervous system responses on-screen—in combination with recreational gaming, Russoniello has proved significant advances in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries. Since 2000, he has been providing free services to residents of eastern North Carolina. 

“That program saved my life,” said U.S. Navy Corpsman Dustin “Doc” Kirby. “It gave me the tools that I needed to help myself instead of just numbing the pain and pushing it away.” After four years of treatment in ECU’s biofeedback lab, Kirby was able to attend college and start a family.

Severe anxiety, flashbacks, nightmares and uncontrollable thoughts are all symptoms of PTSD. The prevalence of it among previously deployed Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom service members is 13.8 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Traumatic brain injuries are also common in veterans and are similarly incapacitating.

Russoniello knows this well. He developed PTSD after losing a mentor, friend and fellow machine-gunner in his infantry platoon during the Vietnam War.

Years later, the experience would spark what he described as a “passion to determine the underlying physiological benefits of recreation or fun activities.” Once he put his finger on that, he knew he would be able to use it to help people cope in significant ways.

Biofeedback technology turned out to be a big piece of the puzzle.

In 2006, a program director from Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville asked him for help with treating Wounded Warrior Marines as they transition back into civilian life. He described the request as what he “had been preparing for (his) whole life.”

Soon, a partnership formed between Russoniello’s biofeedback lab at ECU and the Wounded Warrior Battalion-East at Camp Lejeune. It has since improved the lives of hundreds of veterans.

His work at ECU started in 1999 after Hurricane Floyd devastated eastern North Carolina. Russoniello had just accepted an assistant professor position when he received a call from a social worker at an elementary school in Tarboro. The school and many students’ homes had been destroyed, and the fourth- and fifth-graders were distraught.

Russoniello and his students found that 73 percent of the children had moderate to severe symptoms of PTSD. Using their stress intervention techniques, they helped the children reduce their PTSD symptoms 11 percent faster during the time they delivered services than with no intervention.

Russoniello has created four smartphone apps for the U.S. Department of Defense using the phone’s camera as a sensor for biofeedback. In 2012, he developed a tool for service members during combat: a wireless ear clip that collects sophisticated stress data in remote locations so professionals can analyze it instantly.

Russoniello was raised by a single mother in Scranton, Pennsylvania. By his teenage years, he was living part-time on the streets and getting into trouble with the law. He dropped out of school by the 10th grade and joined the Marine Corps at 17, returning from his Vietnam deployment with no education, skills or direction.

He was soon homeless, working odd jobs at an oil rig and picking fruit. Encouragement from friends and counselors eventually led him to take a few classes at a community college.

“For me, education was a ticket to make something of myself,” he said. “I realized I could be successful at something that could help me build a career.”

—Kelly Setzer