FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas - Physician assistants from every service gathered at Fort Sam Houston Oct. 9 for a celebration in honor of Physician Assistant Week.

The national observance, held each year from Oct. 6 to 12, serves as a time to raise awareness of the role of PAs and to highlight their many and varied contributions to the health care system.

Locally, military leaders take the opportunity each year to spotlight the importance of PAs to the military medical team.

"Not only will (being a PA) change your life in the military, but it will change your life when you get out," guest speaker retired Lt. Col. Donald Parsons told the PAs in attendance, mostly students from the Interservice Physician Assistant Program, Academy of Health Sciences here. "There are jobs in every state of the union in just about any specialty you want to practice in. It's a tremendous opportunity for any of you."
Army PAs serve as the primary medical provider to Soldiers in battalion and division-level units and also provide garrison health care to Soldiers, Family members and other eligible beneficiaries.

Through IPAP, the Army trains about 150 Soldiers a year as well as service members from the Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard, U.S. Army Reserve and National Guard. Graduates of the challenging, two-year program earn a master's degree from the University of Nebraska and, for Soldiers, a commission as a first lieutenant in the Army Medical Specialist Corps.

Parsons, a PA and deputy director of combat medic training here, encouraged the PAs to make the most of their training at Fort Sam Houston in preparation for an increased role on the battlefield.

"The world-changing events since 9/11 have changed our community immensely," Parsons said. "They made our profession much more predominant. When we have a conflict, we find ourselves on the battlefield, taking care of injured combatants.

"The majority of you will have the opportunity to go overseas and serve in combat theater," he said. "Trauma medicine will become a major part of your life. I encourage you very strongly to get as much experience (in trauma) as you can."

As Parsons looked to the future, PAs from each branch of service took turns highlighting the past.

The profession dates back to the mid-1960s, when physicians and educators recognized a shortage and uneven distribution of primary care physicians, according to the American Academy of Physician Assistants Web site. To expand the delivery of quality medical care, Dr. Eugene Stead, of Duke University Medical Center, N.C., put together the first class of PAs in 1965. He selected Navy corpsmen who received considerable medical training during their service and the Vietnam War.

Since that time, the role of PAs has evolved both in and out of the military.

"It is a great job," Parsons said. "I've had a wonderful time being a PA for the last 31 years. I expect all of you will have the opportunity to do the same thing, whether through a military or civilian career."

Retired Col. (Dr.) Candice Castro, IPAP instructor, said she first encountered PAs early on in her career and quickly realized their importance.

Among other tasks, "they have to train medics, provide medical care, be a subject matter expert on equipment and supplies and operational matters," she said.

Castro said she eventually became an instructor of PAs, which was the "best thing that ever happened to me."

"Now that I've retired and am an instructor, it makes me very proud to see many of my former students are instructors now," she said, adding that seven of them were in attendance.

The guest speakers were followed by a cake cutting in honor of PA Week and a trivia contest for the students.

For more information about the Army PA program, visit the IPAP Web site at

(Elaine Wilson works for the Fort Sam Houston Public Affairs)