Profiles of Courage: Medical students overcome tragedy
February 3, 2009
BETHESDA, Md. (Army News Service, Feb. 3, 2009) -- Tucked away in suburban Maryland, aspiring physicians and advanced practice nurses are learning to care for America's wounded warriors at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.
At the nation's School of Medicine and Graduate School of Nursing are the servicemen and women responsible for practicing good medicine in bad places. Along with the brave cadre, there are students who stand out. The stories of Army 2nd Lt. Gilberto Nieves and Air Force 2nd Lt. Demara Wright are two of courage spun on the heels of tragedy.
For Nieves it began in a West Point dormitory - a seemingly normal day for the aspiring infantry Soldier. He was pursuing a family tradition by joining the Army, and Nieves was eager to graduate so he could join his brother on the battlefield.
His ambition would be halted with a single phone call though. On the line, Nieves' mother broke the devastating news: His brother was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, and killed at the hands of Sunni insurgents.
"It was like someone struck me in the heart, and for a long time everything seemed to move in slow motion," lamented Nieves. But he persevered, eventually graduating from West Point. Although devastated, he became fixed on pursuing a career in military medicine, after visiting the USU campus.
Nearing the completion of his second year of medical school, the Soldier's conviction remains steadfast and he is beginning to think about fields of medicine. Nieves is considering pediatrics-he calls himself a kid at heart-but more importantly, wants to mitigate any concerns service members have about their families.
Outside of school, he brings to life the memory of his brother and other fallen heroes by speaking to veterans groups. "I'm not forgetting what Soldiers give up," he said, knowing all too well the meaning of sacrifice.
Nieves is not alone though, his classmate, Demara Wright's journey to USU also draws inspiration from despair because she too came to understand the direst consequences of war.
Wright was married just a couple of weeks when her husband - an Army tank driver -was deployed to Iraq. The newlyweds made the best of their situation, writing letters, speaking frequently, and even sending gifts back and forth.
As the weeks wore on, their correspondence became more sporadic and "I realized he was in a bad place," Wright said. Even so, nothing could prepare her for the news she would receive in the early morning hours on April 29, 2004. Her husband of just two months, Sgt. Adam Estep, died in an RPG attack outside Baghdad while looking for weapons of mass destruction.
A widow at age 20, the once light-hearted bride was grief stricken by the loss of her husband.
"I slept, I ate, I studied, I cried," she said, "and that's what I did for the next year and a half." She also graduated with the highest honors from the University of California, Santa Barbara, before she decided to continue her studies at USU.
"Coming here was important to me because regardless of what area of medicine I go into, I'll be helping people like Adam," she said.
Wright said she still thinks about her late husband everyday, and eagerly recalls the happy memories, but she is moving forward with her life. Recently, she married long-time friend, Renny Wright, and is exploring different career avenues. Interested in psychiatry, Wright is particularly keen on working with veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, understanding there is a real need for progress in this field.
Nieves and Wright admit in these tumultuous times especially, nothing about uniformed service is easy. Still both Soldiers boldly face the challenge of two professions -medicine and the military - and are advancing full steam ahead.
(Christine Creenan writes for the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.)