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USU Helps Warfighters Become Doctors

WASHINGTON -- ten service members are the first students in the Enlisted to Medical Degree Preparatory Program . BACK ROW (left to right): Lindsay Slimski, Joe Merfeld, Charles "Jeremy" Mears, Kenny Johnson, Matt Little (Air Force) FRONT ROW (left to right): Steve Radloff, Jesus Villarreal, Steve Capen, Josh Richter, Alex Blereau (Army). Photos by Cathy Hemelt

A new program that prepares enlisted service members for medical school is turning their dreams of becoming doctors into reality.

Ten students, five each from the Air Force and the Army, started classes Aug. 25 in the Enlisted to Medical Degree Preparatory Program, which is administered by the F. Edward Hébert School of Medicine at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland. The 24-month program includes full-time medical school preparatory coursework at the George Mason University's campus in Manassas, Virginia, as well as faculty and peer mentoring at the Uniformed Services University.

Students qualify for medical school

"With [this program], we will be able to even better recognize the talent that exists within our enlisted - the professional backbone of the military - and provide them an opportunity to continue their aspirations to become physician-leaders in the rapidly evolving Military Health System," Lt. Col. Aaron Saguil, M.D., associate dean for admissions and recruitment at USU's Hébert School of Medicine, said in a statement.

Students who complete the program successfully will qualify to apply to most U.S. medical schools, including the Uniformed Services University.

More than half of the students in the inaugural class have worked as military medics or technicians, but some have no experience in medicine.

Giving back 'in a bigger way'


Air Force Tech. Sgt. Lindsay Slimski, 30, is one of those with no medical background.

"I have an air traffic control background and my degree is in aeronautics - so nowhere near anything medical, although it has always been a dream of mine to be a doctor," said Slimski, who was last stationed at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii. "You kind of stick with what your career field is. So as soon as the requirements (for the program) came out, I jumped on it and applied."

Slimski said she is particularly interested in radiology. Others are interested in emergency medicine, although that may change. Army Sgt. 1st Class Steve Radloff, 30, said that he may end up specializing in a different area once he starts medical school.

"You never know what will pique your interest while you're going through it, or what opportunities you will be afforded," said Radloff.

Army Staff Sgt. Alex Blereau, 30, a flight medic who has deployed to Afghanistan, agreed that it is too early to say for sure whether he will pursue a career in emergency medicine.

"I'm very blessed to have this opportunity to further my education and give back to the Army in a bigger way, as a military physician," he said.

Like winning the lottery

Some of the students in the new program were contemplating giving up their military careers in order to pursue their dreams of becoming doctors when they heard about the program.

Air Force Tech. Sgt. Charles "Jeremy" Mears, 31, a medical technician who has deployed to Iraq, said he considered leaving the Air Force to attend medical school and then re-enlisting.

"But when I found the program, it was the golden ticket, it was like winning the lottery," he said.

Army Sgt. 1st Class Josh Richter, 33, a soldier, was also at a crossroads in his career and seeking a change: "I was at the stage where I needed to separate from the military in order to do it, because pursuing medicine while you're on active duty is challenging," he said.

The program was a great way to translate his passion for fitness and optimizing the health of service members into a career as a doctor, said Air Force Tech. Sgt. Kenny Johnson, 29.

"That I could go straight into being a physician without any break in service was awesome," said Johnson, a medical laboratory technician who is interested in endocrinology.

'An opportunity I thought was gone'

Staff Sgt. Matt Little, 27, had been an emergency medical technician before he joined the Air Force, where he worked in contracting.

"My career had headed into an entirely different direction," Little said. "It was an opportunity that I thought was gone at this point in my life ... You don't think about going to med school at 30."

Now Little is returning to his true passion - helping others: "My whole goal in joining the military was to get back to emergency medicine and to be a paramedic firefighter once I got out. So this is just miles ahead of that, but still along the same public-service, taking-care-of-people path."

Sgt. Steve Capen, 28, a military medic who studied biochemistry before joining the Army four years ago, said he views the program as a way to push himself to the next level. "I felt like I was capable of doing more," he said. "I just want to challenge myself, increase my skill set and do as much as I can to help people."

After studying criminal justice in college with a view to a career in law enforcement, Staff Sgt. Joe Merfeld, 33, said he considered nursing. Then he joined the Air Force five and a half years ago, where he worked as a manpower analyst.

When a supervisor suggested Merfeld apply to the program, both of them were initially stumped as to what it actually entailed.

"He thought it was a nursing or physician's assistant program," Merfeld recalled. "Neither of us thought that there was a physician program out there that would send an enlisted person to premed for two years and then give them the opportunity to be a doctor. When we actually researched what it was, it was kind of mind-blowing that it was this amazing opportunity."

Even now, the reality of it all is still sinking in, said Merfeld, who would like to go into family or emergency medicine.

"It's kind of like that 'pinch me, is this still real?' kind of feeling," he said.

Really good program

Sgt. 1st Class Jesus Villarreal, 31, has served in the Army for more than 13 years, including three deployments to Iraq and one tour of duty in Afghanistan that ended in April, when he returned to his wife and three daughters where he was last stationed in Vilsack, Germany.

"I've always wanted to be a physician," he said. "It's always been a dream of mine."

So the Army scout and drill sergeant, whose only previous medical training was a month-long course as an emergency medical technician in 2003, applied to the Interservice Physician Assistant Program, only to find out that he had served for too long - four months past the 13-year cutoff, to be precise - to get accepted. He said he assumed he would not have another opportunity to receive medical training through the military.

On July 14, he heard about the new USU program, just two days before applications were due. He received an email asking who in his platoon might be eligible to apply.

"I started reading the email and thought 'hey, this is a really good program, and I'm the only one who's eligible,'" he said. He submitted his application packet, was accepted into the program, and moved back home with his family.

"Both my wife and I felt it was such a blessing, we were so happy that I actually got accepted," said Villarreal, who is interested in becoming a cardiologist or neurologist.

Villarreal holds a master's degree in criminal justice, which has also informed his interest in the inner workings of the human brain.

"I like to get into the criminal mind and figure out what caused people to commit crimes," he said, one reason he's considering neurology as a specialty.

Thanks to the new Enlisted to Medical Degree Preparatory Program, he said, he will be able to do that.