Interview with Danny Matta: Military and Federal PT

Thank you for everyone who responded to the survey that were interested in Federal/Military PT.  Over 35+ of you responded to the survey I sent out via social media.

Image from US DOD
Image from US Department of Defense

Here are some rough statistics from the survey:

  • 57% male, 43% female
  • 44% identified themselves as in their second year of PT school
  • Only 19% were members of the Federal Section of the APTA

Today, we are joined by Danny Matta, PT, DPT, OCS, CSCS.  Danny is a coach, physical therapist and founder of Athletes’ Potential based in Atlanta, GA.  Danny spent 7 years in the Army as a physical therapist, receiving his degree from Baylor University.  Danny has been kind enough to give some time and answer some questions you have about Military/Federal PT.


Could you tell us a little about yourself?

My name is Danny Matta. I’m a physical therapist with a strong emphasis in strength and conditioning and movement optimization. I own a practice in Atlanta, Ga called Athletes’ Potential and I am one of the instructors of Kelly Starrett’s group, MobilityWOD. For a more detailed background check out the Athletes’ Potential website here.

What got you into physical therapy? Military Physical Therapy?

I had meniscus surgery when I was a sophomore in high school. After surgery I worked with a PT that was great. I also noticed that all the PTs I met/interacted with were all happy. They all seemed to like their job and it didn’t seem to control their lives.

I have strong ties to the military as pretty much everyone in my family has been in or is retired from a branch of the military. I was interested in the Baylor program and liked the idea of the physical nature of being in the military. This really was my only choice for a school. I literally did not apply to any other school besides Baylor. If I hadn’t gotten in the first year, I would have reapplied until I got in. Being a PT in the Army was something that was important to me.

What are some differences working as a Military PT vs a Civilian PT?

PTs in the military from a professional standpoint has much more autonomy. In my opinion they also seem to be much more regarded as peers with the physician/PA community vs just ancillary service providers.

PTs in the military have had complete direct access since the 70s and are used in many different settings. You could be in a hospital and do your traditional in patient/out patient work. You could run a small satellite clinic called a Troop Medical Clinic. You could be attached to a brigade and function as the sole PT for a group of 3500 soldiers. You can even get attached to special operations groups like the Rangers and Army Special Forces. These roles have heavy emphasis on injury prevention and human performance optimization in conjunction with PT treatment work.

Aside from the clinical side you get to do some cool things as well. You have to qualify on weapons every year, you have to attend trauma training and combatives training. You have to go through some watered down military training but it’s still a blast. If you like guns, being outside and a team environment, being a PT in the military can be pretty cool!

Do you feel that there is a difference in skill between therapists who had their schooling through military programs and those who did not?

I do think there is a difference in the skill between PTs that go through school in the military and civilian school. That really only applies to certain areas being manual therapy, primary care knowledge and injury prevention emphasis. By the time you finish your year long ortho internship in school you are expected to function as a sole provider with no mentoring/help required. You do get less neuro, peds and geriatric education because that’s not the emphasis they need you to have when treating soldiers.

I feel the difference is marginal if at all after a few years out of school. Much of quality progression depends on the time the individual puts into improving their own skill set, no matter where they went to school.

What is the process and requirements for commissioning as a PT in the Armed Forces?  How competitive is becoming a military PT?

You have to be accepted into the Baylor program, check their website for a list of prerequisites. After commissioning you go to Officer Basic Course at the end of the year. This is more of an educational course with 3 week spent training in the field(sleeping in a tent).  You do learn some interesting skills such as land navigation, combatives, basic trauma training and marksmanship. After that you start school in January.

It’s pretty competitive to get into the program. They take both direct commision students as well as those with previous military experience.

What do recruiters look for in candidates?

In my experience they are looking for good GPA, GRE scores, mentorship hours and possibly previous military experience. Previous military experience seems to be a tie breaker in many ways. Those individuals have already shown they have a commitment to the military and in my opinion you have to have better GPAs, test scores, references to get in if you don’t have previous military experience.

Can you contract while in school? What does a typical contract look like? What is an average length of service? Are PTs deployed often? What is the pay? What is the process like?

You are under a contract once you start school. Once you finish you owe 4.5 years of service. I was in for 7 years total so just 6 months longer than my commitment. You could stay for an entire career 20 years if you want to or you can separate once your commitment is up.

PTs are deployed but it’s much less frequent than it was 3-5 years ago. I would say it’s rare now that there aren’t as many troops in the middle east.

Pay is comparative with the civilian counter parts maybe even a little better because of tax advantages. You can look up salaries by rank online, it’s public information. Look up 2LT with 0 years of experience to see what you would make as a student starting out and CPT with 3 years experience to see what you would make as a new grad.

What does a typical day for a Military PT look like?  What are common diagnoses you see?

This depends greatly on what setting you function in.

If you are in a hospital you usually start around 8am and finish at 5PM. You see an average of 12-16 patients usually but it could be more or less. You typically see outpatient ortho, post op and sports related injuries in these setting. Sometimes you will work with geriatric populations of retirees but not often.

In a brigade setting you get up and go to do physical training at 630, you finish that around 8. You have an hour to grab breakfast/shower. Clinic starts at 9 and finishes around 1. You have meetings or teach injury prevention courses after that until whenever the day is done, usually 5.

The one perk to being at a brigade besides working in a more flexible environment is you tend to get much more time off. Long weekends for training holidays are very common.

The most common injuries seen are training related. Lot’s of running related injuries like PFPS, ITB issues, lower back pain, shoulder impingement. Also, lots of stress fx related injuries in the lower extremity if you are working on a base where they have some sort of basic or advanced training.

What is your favorite part of the job? What is your least favorite part of the job? What is something you wish you would have known before becoming a military PT?

I love the team environment of the military. You got to get out of the clinic with your guys and train/workout. You develop strong bonds in the military that if I saw tomorrow it would be like running into a brother or sister.

My least favorite part of the job is endless training that goes along with a government job. This is computer based training that you have to do constantly for different new hospital regulations, online security issues, knowing what to do in severe weather and other bull shit that is very time consuming. This is also true for anyone that works on a military base, not just the active duty soldier.

I wish I would have known more about being a soldier before getting into the military. Even though I grew up in a military family I never was enlisted in the military. I think soldiers have more respect for PTs that have previous service as an enlisted soldier.  

Are there differences between the way a PT practices within each branch of the military?

Not really. There are some very small differences in jobs you can take and how quickly you make rank but it’s very similar.

What settings do Federal/Military PTs work in? I know many are outpatient services for active duty military and their families, but are there acute/rehab settings as well?

Most of the acute rehab is handled by civilian hospitals. There are certain major hospitals that do this but only at the medical centers. If you want to do acute rehab the military is not your best option.

Is it possible to work as a civilian PT and still work with members of the military?

Yes, you can either come on as a GS employee or as a contractor. GS jobs are harder to come by but have better benefits and more stability. Contract jobs are easier to come by, you make more money but don’t have any guarantee that your contract will be picked up the next year.

What other government/Federal opportunities for physical therapists are there?

The only other one that comes to mind besides what I have already described is the Public Health Corps. These are active duty PTs that work at places like indian reservations and jails. They are considered part of the department of defense, you wear a uniform to work every day but they do not get deployed to combat zones and rarely are moved.

Do military PT facilities accept students for clinicals?

Yes, I’ve actually been a CI for 3 different students. Two were are Schofield Barracks when I was stationed in Hawaii and the third was at Ft. Benning in Columbus GA.

What do I need to be considering during PT school if I think I might like to work in federal/military PT?  Any advice for new DPTs who are interested in serving?

Your best route into the military as a PT is through the Army-Baylor program. They do take PTs that have civilian educations but it’s rare and depends on the year. Some years they take 1 or 2 and then it can be multiple years in a row where they don’t take any.

I want to work with those who have served, how else can I get involved without being active service?  

You don’t have to be in the military to work with soldiers. You can be a contractor or a GS employee and work directly with them. You can also volunteer with groups like Team Red White and Blue and Wounded Warrior Project.

Any comments, thoughts or words of wisdom before we end the interview?

If you have a question feel free to reach out to me at danny@athletespotential.com

Thanks for your questions.

-Danny

Image used with permission from Athletes' Potential.
Image used with permission from Athletes’ Potential.

Thank you Danny for answering our questions!  We appreciate you taking time out of your busy schedule to help us students out with questions about military/federal PT.

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