Call of duty
By Diane Smith
Mikel Bell’s plan to become a doctor came while fighting the war on terrorism in Iraq where he gave medical support to U.S. Marines.
In 2007, Bell was a Navy corpsman embedded with a Marine unit fighting in Iraq, removing improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and stopping people from making bombs. Later, he worked to rebuild the city of Ramadi.
“I wore their uniform. I trained with them, ate, slept, fought with them – everything,” Bell said. “I was basically just another Marine until somebody got hurt, and then I patched them up and kept fighting.”
Bell is among thousands of post-9/11 military veterans who are seeking new careers as healthcare professionals. He graduated this spring from HSC’s Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine.
After serving in military posts across the globe, many veterans are returning to school to become doctors, pharmacists, physician assistants and other health-related professionals. Many rely on the Post 9/11 GI Bill – a federal educational assistance approved in 2008, according to Student Veterans of America.
Veteran students in Texas also get financial assistance through the Hazelwood Act.
Health professions are listed as the second-highest degree field for veterans using federal tuition assistance, according to the National Veteran Education Success Tracker. More than 37,000 veterans have earned degrees in health professions since 2008.
During the 2019-2020 academic year, HSC had about 60 students listed as either veterans or military reservists.
The campus, which was designated a Purple Heart University in 2017, includes 19 military veterans who are part of the university’s faculty and staff.
“Healthcare is a popular choice for veterans because it is about serving,” said Glenn Forister, PhD, PA-C, Dean of the School of Health Professions.
Dr. Forister, who served for eight years as a captain in the U.S. Army Reserve, added: “People with a service orientation find value and meaning in helping others.”
‘Service before self’
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a new generation of soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen enlisted. Some discovered a passion for healing others and returned home with plans to attend medical school.
“After 9/11 and the start of the war in Iraq, I felt a moral obligation,” Bell said. “I wanted to fight in combat. I also wanted the training of a medic so I became a Navy corpsman.”
In Fort Worth, the Health Science Center’s values – serve others first, integrity, respect, collaboration and be visionary – align with military values, Dr. Forister said. For example, the U.S. Army values include loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage.
“The Air Force calls for integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do.” Dr. Forister said. “We share common definitions of these values such as doing what’s right even when no one else is looking.”
Charlene Norgan Radler, a U.S. Navy officer, also wants to be a doctor. A graduate of the Medical Science program in the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, she continues to serve in the Navy Reserve.
“I love being able to put on my uniform once a month,” she said. “I love staying ready to serve the nation.”
Trust her training
Radler said she learned to trust her knowledge and training while serving onboard a ship in the Sea of Japan.
“The leadership that I have learned and seen through the military would 100 percent be an asset to me as a physician,” she said. “I know I can question things – to not always accept the status quo, but look for the right answers.”
Military sniper and doctor don’t seem like similar careers at first glance, but former U.S. Marine Sgt. Jonathan Sweeney sees them as two jobs that serve to protect.
He said physician trainees share traits with people selected for military sniper training.
“The big thing is they want to make sure that you, one, don’t quit,” said Sweeney, who graduates from the Medical Science program this year. “Two, they want to make sure you can maintain your composure in a high-stress environment. They really want to see teamwork.”
Bell, who also is a father and husband, said the evolution from Navy corpsman to doctor is a natural one.
“We love service,” Bell said. “We love challenge and we are disciplined enough to do it.”
From military to med school
In the military, medics and corpsmen are well respected, Bell said. “Doc is on a pedestal.”
Medics and corpsmen provide care on ships and on the battlefield, Dr. Forister said. But many veterans have some health-related experience.
“They often work in austere environments with a high level of responsibility and autonomy,” Dr. Forister said of medics and corpsmen. “Other military personnel receive training as combat lifesavers. They learn how to treat wounds, start IVs, and stop bleeding – think of it as very advanced first aid.”
Dr. Forister, who served as a physician assistant in the Army Reserve, said these transferable wartime skills also are valued in peacetime.
“In the early years of the physician assistant profession, former medics and corpsmen from the Vietnam War were recruited to fill gaps in healthcare delivery and access,” he said. “The profession gained students who had rich life experiences and leadership qualities.”
Radler served as a naval Surface Warfare Officer, a self-described “a jack of all trades.” She handled the duties of an Officer of the Deck directing navigation during maritime exercises.
“You have to maintain leadership, think clearly, give precise orders and lead your team to make sure you don’t put your ship in danger,” she said.
Radler was inspired to join the military after participating in Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps in high school. After graduation, she joined the ROTC program at Florida A&M University, where she majored in political science.
But an ambition to become a doctor emerged for Radler after witnessing military personnel handle humanitarian missions that provided food and aid to countries in need. While stationed in San Diego, she also networked with military doctors.
Radler now is participating in the clinical research management program at the Baylor Scott & White Research Institute in Dallas. A certified emergency medical technician, she plans to apply to medical schools, including TCOM.
Sweeney was homeschooled throughout his high school years and attended Dallas Baptist University before enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps in 2010. He was majoring in business when he followed a long-held calling to join the military.
While on active duty, Sweeney realized he had a strong interest in medicine.
He delayed his graduation after completing the Medical Science program at HSC so he could participate in research. Upon graduation, he plans to apply to medical school.
Sweeney said he wants to work in a county hospital emergency room where he can treat homeless people.
He expects medical school to be as rigorous as the military.
“You have to prove that you are a decent person, and you are going to make these decisions – you are talking about life and death situations a lot of the times,” Sweeney said.
For Bell, the health needs of Iraq’s civilian population were a living classroom. In one case, a woman struggled with end-stage renal disease.
“I didn’t even know what that was at the time,” Bell recalled, adding the patient had little chance of surviving. He gave her fluids and pain medication.
“Her family was grateful,” he said. “They saw us as super heroes.”
When Bell returned to Texas, he attended the University of Texas at Austin. He graduated in 2015 with a double major in philosophy and biology. In Fort Worth, he was a student in the Medical Science master’s program before entering TCOM.
Bell sought residency programs this spring as medical school neared end. He applied for family medicine programs and a combined Family Medicine/Osteopathic Neuromusculoskeletal Medicine program. Bell plans to pursue board certification in both specialties.
“I love medicine,” he said. “I love helping people and taking care of their concerns.”