Senior Profile / Dennis Dever: Safe Moves for Marines, Armed Services Personnel

Issue Date: 
May 2, 2016

Perhaps it was the dramatic TV commercial that Dennis Dever saw as a child. It featured a U.S. Marine slaying a fire-breathing beast. Or maybe it was his early fascination with military history. 

But Dever says he knew throughout his youth in rural Central Pennsylvania that he wanted to join the U.S. Marine Corps.

Dennis Dever

Things fell into place for Dever, who grew up in Fairfield, a small town just south of Gettysburg. In high school, he joined the Marines’ Delayed Entry Program, which permits young men and women to enlist a year before they are sent to boot camp. Eventually, as the Pentagon beefed up its troops in Afghanistan in 2009, Dever was among them. He was fresh out of high school, deployed as a member of the U. S. Marine Corps 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, rooting out insurgents.

In training and on duty, Dever noticed that he and his comrades often pulled tendons, twisted ankles, or injured joints as they jumped from military vehicles and patrolled rough terrain while strapped with 60 pounds of gear. He wondered if there was a way to prevent these common musculoskeletal injuries, which hampered movement and performance. It inspired him, at the end of his tour of duty, to enroll in the University of Pittsburgh School of Education’s Department of Health and Physical Activity.

Today, Corporal Dever graduates with a bachelor’s degree in exercise science. His goal is to help design new tactical training programs for Marines as well as other men and women in the armed services so their bodies are better prepared for the grueling physical activity they endure.

“There were injuries we sustained that probably could have been avoided if we had known how to move properly,” says the 26-year-old Dever, adding that boot camp doesn’t really focus on that kind of physical preparation.

“Marines are not taught properly how to get up from a prone to standing position with all the gear they’re carrying. You just do it! Do it, and get the job done,” he adds.

At Pitt, Dever kept his body highly conditioned as a member of the Panther CrossFit Club. He was active with the Student Veterans Association and was a regular participant at the National Remembrance Day Roll Call. A consistent member of the Dean’s List, he also raised funds for the American Cancer Society through the Relay for Life for two years. 

But some of his most important volunteer work, he says, was his participation over the past 18 months in Department of Defense-funded research in  the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, part of Pitt’s schools of the health sciences. 

One study involved the Marine Special Operations Command. Several days a week, he worked alongside Anne Beethe, a graduate student researcher in Pitt’s Neuromuscular Research Laboratory. Dever helped create and construct the complicated equipment he used to test each subject’s strength, range of motion, and body fat assessments on land, as well as overall aerobic fitness assessments in water. The tests measure oxygen uptake and overall fitness as the swimmer completes a maximal swim test. 

“With this data, we can tell how much energy they expend at their resting and maximal efforts,” says Beethe. “This will help us take the next step to determine what can be done to assist military personnel in their efforts during surface water activities. This includes type of gear, swim strokes, and specific movements that can help the combat swimmer use less energy. This data, validated in the pool, can then be applied to future studies.”

“Dennis is a huge asset for us to better understand what can be done and how to make it happen,” she adds.

In a second internship, Dever worked through the Allegheny Health Network as a strength-and-conditioning coach. The clients ranged from teenagers to off-season professional baseball players. That introduced him to a unique model of integrating physical therapy with strength and conditioning to more effectively prepare athletes for return to play.

But his military comrades are never far from his mind, and they’re part of the reason he will begin a master’s degree program in sports medicine this fall at Pitt’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences.

He thinks often of the military personnel still engaged in firefights that last for days; detonating IEDs alongside the road before they strike military men and women; and jumping from vehicles while weighted down with heavy gear. It takes a toll on the mightiest Marine. 

“There’s a movement pattern for every push or pull we do for the upper and lower body,” he says, “and there’s a certain standard that should be upheld for those movements. We should be able to help service personnel move and land properly within their own mechanical bounds so that, when they leave the service, they don’t suffer from chronic injuries sooner than they should for their age. Marines age in dog years.”

If Dever had his way, this body movement training would begin in boot camp and be reinforced throughout one’s military career.

While he’s looking forward to doing more military-based research at Pitt later this year, he hopes to eventually make a difference for the troops abroad in a field that has become his passion.

“I understand I have to do a lot of preliminary footwork,” he says. “I don’t really have a voice yet.” But for this nation’s Marines and other service personnel, his work may soon ensure safer, softer landings ahead.