After Four Decades, Leggieri Revs Up the Engine, Rides into Retirement
Michael Leggieri sits at the small conference table in his basement office, points to a picture on the wall behind him, and smiles. In a sparsely decorated room that includes little outside of a desk, a telephone, and a computer, the four framed photos of four different motorcycles dotting the far wall can't help but occupy prime real estate.
"That yellow one I crashed, got busted up pretty bad" says Leggieri, referring –almost proudly, in a way– to the bike he wrecked in Utah back in 2012. Then comes a story about the Honda Goldwing he owns and then the Indian Chieftain and then, lastly, the Yamaha. He talks for one minute straight without taking a breath before he stops and apologizes.
"If you get me talking about things that I really love," he says, before trailing off a little, "I just can't stop."
For the people who know Leggieri, that statement seems like the perfect descriptor of the scientist and researcher who's spent more than 20 years at the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command (USAMRDC). For Leggieri himself, however, the man who's served as the Director of the DOD Blast Injury Research Coordinating Office for the past decade-plus, that last statement sounds more like an ambitious prediction for his own personal future. When he finally retires on October 29 after four decades of total service to the DOD, he won't have to stop for anyone or anything ever again.
It's a familiar –if lengthy– story, especially for those with military roots. But just like your favorite movie, the best parts of Michael Leggieri's story are the characters and the dialogue, and then additionally how the narrator brings the whole thing to life with his own special verve. After graduating high school in 1975, Leggieri enlisted in the Air Force, where he served for four years before heading to Penn State University. There, he earned both a bachelors and a master's degree before joining the Army via direct commission as an Environmental Science Officer. Well over a decade later, in 1998, he came to the USAMRDC as the Deputy Director of the Military Operational Medicine Research Program (MOMRP).
Karl Friedl, Leggieri's former boss at MOMRP and the current Senior Research Scientist Performance Physiology at the USAMRDC's U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine (USARIEM) notes, quite dryly, that Leggieri was so unenthused by his new posting back then that he requested a hardship tour from his assignment officer after his first day on the job. And yet, slowly but surely, the role began to rub off on him.
"Individuals who are competent in research and field work often turn out to be some of the best staff officers," says Friedl, whom Leggieri counts as one of his oldest friends, "because of that [very same] competence and dedication to serving the Soldier."
His time at MOMRP as both an officer and, later, a contractor lasted for the better part of the decade before Leggieri was ultimately tapped to stand up the DOD Blast Injury Research Coordinating Office in 2007. As the title implies, the office is responsible for collecting and curating all DOD blast injury efforts across the military, corporate, and academic worlds; in other words, connecting otherwise disparate stakeholders for the purpose of a common goal. As the only director the office has ever known, Leggieri contributes his proficiency in large part to his work at MOMRP.
"The challenge in this job is bringing all these different communities together," says Leggieri. "I think it's just human nature; but because these diverse disciplines don't naturally work together, being able to bring those types of communities together and get them to collaborate is very powerful."
But to confine this story solely to an office or a lab would be a mistake. In Leggieri's case, the action –those interesting, one-of-a-kind stories and anecdotes– springs from emotion; from time with his wife and family, from the sound of one of his three bikes zipping across hot pavement, and –occasionally– from the synthesis of the two.
"My wife and I go way back," says Leggieri, inadvertently burying the lead. He and his wife Linda –who will celebrate their 44th wedding anniversary this year– initially met in a kindergarten class in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, before drifting apart during their childhood and early teenage years. By the time eleventh grade chemistry class came around, however, the picture had become much clearer for both.
"When I met my wife at that point," says Leggieri, "I knew we were meant to be together."
It must've been that same kind of fate, then, that brought him together with his beloved motorcycles. What started out with a mini-bike at 13 years old turned into a dirt bike a few years later and has since escalated into an all-out infatuation; one that he's carried throughout his adult life. Long-distance solo rides are common for Leggieri, as he's toured across 44 states so far. A mammoth, 12,000 mile trip to Alaska –to the arctic circle, no less– is already penciled into his calendar for next summer.
"When I'm on a motorcycle, I can literally still feel the same sensations I felt when I was 13 and riding a dirt bike in the Poconos of Pennsylvania," says Leggieri, who turned 62 in early October. "It's like, you can go to a movie and sit there and you can look at the scene in front of you – but when you get on a motorcycle, you are in the scene."
Perhaps it's that same kind of passion that swayed Linda, who –in Leggieri's own words– goes against type with the whole "motorcycle thing." He maintains that his wife's understanding and support have made –and continue to make– riding his hobby of choice.
"My wife actually encourages me to ride motorcycles," he says. "You know, most guys will say that they'd love to ride a motorcycle but their wives won't let them. But my wife says that I must ride motorcycles, because she knows what it does for me, for my well-being."
It does so much for him, in fact, that Leggieri says that he's planning on restoring 1970's vintage motorcycles once he steps out of the professional world for good. He's already built a two-car garage in his backyard expressly for that purpose he says, with welding lessons planned soon at the local community college.
Says Leggieri, "I mean, if I had to give up motorcycles … that's like giving up a piece of my life."
And so it must be that same kind of personal drive, one combined with equal parts dedication and commitment, which makes Leggieri so effective. After all, if you're looking for maximum impact, it only makes sense to apply those talents both at home and in the workplace. And in Leggieri's case, it's the systematic, principled administration of those talents over 40 years that's helped cement his reputation.
"If you have attended one of Mike's presentations, you would have benefited by his clear and logical thinking," says longtime friend Jaques Reifman, Senior Research Scientist at the Biotechnology HPC Software Applications Institute (BHSAI), which is located within the USAMRDC's Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center (TATRC). "If you have become Mike's friend, you would have benefited by his thoughtful and wise counsel."
"I am lucky," continues Reifman, "to have benefitted from both."
Maybe that's where Leggieri's story –at least the USAMRDC part– ends for now. Take a spin through his office and there's almost no telltale sign that he's going anywhere, that he's leaving. No boxes, no masking tape. He's quick to make clear the copious notes and records he's collected during his tenure have been filed and prepped for the next person that occupies his seat. As his pal Friedl points out, Leggieri has an "obsession" with order that borders on infatuation. But perhaps those two things –order and obsession– are byproducts of each other. It certainly makes sense, as even now Leggieri continues reeling off his list of retirement goals; talking about his burgeoning 'foodie' tendencies ("I do most of the cooking in our house," he says) while, in the very next breath, talking about the Italian restaurant his parents owned when he was a boy ("The very first one in the Poconos!" he says). He even rolls up his shirtsleeve to show off a forearm tattoo honoring the latter; a rendition of an old VW Microbus used for pizza deliveries with the family name on the side.
Just a man talking about the things he really loves.
But for at least a few more days, however, he'll have to split those after-hours passions with his service and work life. Until then he's still committed –still excitable, even– as he readies the next chapter of his life, still reeling off facts and figures regarding the blast program's plan for the immediate future; an effort to rapidly develop new protection systems against emerging blast threats by producing a computational model of the entire human body's response to blast.
Sounds about right, in a way. Still eager to do everything he needs to do before he gets to do everything he wants to do. In wrapping up a military and civilian career that's been defined by a variety of passions, it's always important to lock down all the professional-world details before walking out the door one last time.
Says Leggieri, "I hope that's the legacy I'm going to leave behind; emphasizing the importance of coordination, of collaboration, of information sharing – I think that's really key."