Five enlisted Airmen to begin medical school as AF officers Published May 13, 2016 By Prerana Korpe Air Force Surgeon General Public Affairs Falls Church, Va. -- Armed with a dream and determination, five enlisted Airmen arrived in Bethesda, Md., two years ago, to embark on a new journey. This summer, these Airmen will become commissioned officers of the Air Force Medical Service, before matriculating into the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, as first year medical students. Together they formed the inaugural Air Force cadre of the Enlisted to Medical Degree Preparatory Program, known as EMDP2. They came from all parts of the country and different professional backgrounds –from contracting to air traffic control. The Enlisted to Medical Degree Preparatory Program is a partnership between the Armed Services and Uniformed Services University. Designed for enlisted service members, the two-year program enables members to remain on active duty status while enrolled as full-time students in preparation for application to medical school. During the first year of the program, students complete prerequisite courses. These courses, along with the Medical College Admission Test, prepare them for application to medical school by the start of year two. The second year of the program is considered the graduate year, during which students take graduate level courses intended to prepare them for the first year of medical school. Althea Green is the director of recruitment and outreach at USUHS. A program like EMDP2 was a dream of hers for many years. “During my time in the Army medical department, I served with many talented young people who I knew would make great doctors. I have wanted to see this program happen for a long time –it is something many of our military leaders have wanted,” said Green. “It was great that the stars aligned and we were able to get [the program] off the ground.” “There is a great deal of talent that exists across the enlisted force,” Green said. “There are a lot of people who are working very, very hard. These service members want the opportunity to succeed. When provided the opportunity and right level of support, many seize the opportunity and go very far.” Tech. Sgt. Jeremy Mears’ EMDP2 journey started with an email from a colleague who had heard about the program and thought Mears would be interested. “I came [into the Air Force] at 21 and was a medic my entire Air Force career,” Mears said. “I have always enjoyed the opportunity to serve my country and help people at the same time.” Mears deployed to Iraq in 2006 and worked at the Joint Base Balad combat hospital. He described his desire to become a physician as a snowball effect. “It really started when I deployed to Iraq,” Mears said. “Experiencing the emotions and different situations … including the various patients that I encountered –friendlies and insurgents—treating them as well as our own … the whole gamut –that’s where it began.” Mears decided to follow-up with his colleague’s email and gave EMDP2 a try. “I had one shot,” Mears recalled. “If I didn’t make it in the first year, I would have too much time in the service to qualify. I felt [EMDP2] was put there at the perfect time for me and my career.” On his 31st birthday, Mears was at his parents’ house in Houston, when he received the phone call that changed the course of his career –on the other end of the line was his squadron commander, informing him that he had been accepted into EMDP2. “It’s never too late,” said Mears. “Don’t get discouraged if you’re not the traditional student. That’s becoming the old way of doing it.” “If you really want to do something, go out and find a way,” Mears said. “And keep going until your dreams come true.” When Tech. Sgt. Kenneth Johnson first heard about the program, he could not believe it. “I thought, this is crazy, there is no such program,” said Johnson. “I pride myself on knowing what’s going on out there and I had not heard of EMDP2.” “Then my colleague Staff Sgt. Kass Vaughn showed me it was true. As soon as I saw it, I thought, this is incredible … let me see what I can do to get in,” Johnson said. A few weeks later, he appeared for the ACT. “I got exactly the baseline score –just what I needed,” he said. Able to cross off the first challenge, Johnson submitted his application to EMDP2. Known by his peers as “Mr. Positivity,” Johnson maintained his vision that he would in fact participate in EMDP2 and go on to medical school. A few weeks later, Johnson received official notification that he had been accepted into the program. According to Johnson, the extreme changes all at once came as a shock to his system. “I had to move my entire household from Ohio –including my wife and two kids –to come to school in the DC area and hit the ground running.” Managing a fulltime course load while balancing a family life challenged Johnson to look for creative ways to keep up with schoolwork and prepare for the MCAT. “I would listen to audios on course topics like physics during my long car rides to and from school,” recalled Johnson. “I would wake up at 2 a.m. to do MCAT practice tests.” Johnson needed a quiet place where he could sit undisturbed for a few hours at a stretch. “I would use the empty bath tub as a last ditch effort study spot –sit in the tub and take my tests,” he said. “I would shut myself in the bathroom until my tests were done.” “I remember asking my teacher, ‘how do you fit two bags of soil into one?’” he said. “At the time, everything seemed like an obstacle.” Johnson shared that for “Mr. Positivity” this was a big test on the psyche. “All those resiliency skills really came out … there was such a high volume of workload and [constant] mental effort,” he said. “Getting through it was about learning to be efficient with my time. This program has really shown me how you [choose to] use [your 24 hours] will determine how successful you will be.” Johnson and his classmates powered through and prevailed. All five Airmen achieved high grades, made the honor roll and Dean’s list. According to Green and Johnson, professors considered these Airmen some of the best students they had ever had. “[Our professors] told us we had refreshed their careers as far as wanting to be teachers,” said Johnson. “More than the honor roll, that part felt really good –to form that sacred relationship between student and teacher and to know we raised the bar and held up our end of the bargain.” Johnson shared that the pressure of being the inaugural class pushed him to achieve more. “With so many people watching the program, we didn’t want to let anyone down,” he said. “We wanted to make sure we kept this door open for our enlisted counterparts.” “[This experience] showed me that I’m capable of a lot more than I thought. I didn’t believe I’d be able to take these classes and study for the MCAT and be a good husband and a good father,” Johnson said. “This showed me I’m able to do more than I think I am.” Johnson and Mears shared that what got their cadre through the program was leaning on one another. I am an American Airman. Wingman, Leader, Warrior. I will never leave an Airman behind, I will never falter and I will not fail, as goes the Airman’s creed. According to Green, “Many of these service members dreamed about doing something like this … many thought they would never be able to do it.” “Here they are now, about to embark on becoming medical students and doctors, and part of our medical force, to be commissioned as health care leaders,” said Green. “Being a part of that makes me very proud.” They came in as pioneers, determined to achieve their dreams. They leave behind a legacy of the success of a dream driven with determination: the inaugural EMDP2 Air Force cadre which emerged with a 100 percent rate of acceptance into medical school. Tech. Sgt. Mears and Tech. Sgt. Johnson, along with their classmates Staff Sgt. Matt Little, Tech. Sgt. Lindsay Slimski and Tech. Sgt. Joe Merfeld will be graduating from the Enlisted to Medical Degree Preparatory Program this May –matriculating as USUHS medical students in August. To learn more about EMDP2, visit USUHS EMDP2.