By Elizabeth M. Collins, Soldiers, Defense Media ActivityDecember 15, 2015
FORT MEADE, Md. (Dec. 15, 2015) -- For years, they had dreamed of becoming a doctor, a physician or a surgeon, but life had different plans. For a variety of reasons, they wound up enlisting in the military, some as medics, some in non-medical fields, some even made it to special operations. Their careers progressed and they received promotions and awards. That first dream became something to be pursued someday, in another life, after the military.
In the Army, doctors and senior noncommissioned officers also spent years losing their most talented Soldiers to that dream, wishing they could offer them more opportunities while on active duty. The other services agreed, and officials went back and forth, discussing a program that would keep enlisted service members in the military and get them into medical school.
"This is something that I've wanted to see happen since I've been on active duty," said retired Command Sgt. Maj. Althea Green-Dixon, director of recruitment and outreach for the F. Edward Hébert School of Medicine at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, or USUHS, and director of the new Enlisted to Medical Degree Preparatory, or EMDP2, Program. She also happens to be the former command sergeant major of the Army Medical Department. "There are so many smart, talented enlisted people out there who I knew could be great physicians, but the pathway for them to get to the point of being a competitive medical school applicant is just so very challenging to accomplish."
That's because the courses required to get into medical school - hard science courses with labs - typically aren't offered on the weekends or evenings. Or if they are, they're not conducive to Soldiers' lifestyles. If they have to go out in the field for a month or even a week, they'll fall seriously behind. Making it work, Green-Dixon said, is "nearly impossible."
In the new EMDP2 program, which the USUHS runs with George Mason University, qualified service members have the opportunity to devote two years to classroom study and preparing for the Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT. During that time, they don't have to worry about deploying or training. Their sole duty is to be students at Mason's Manassas, Virginia, campus, studying subjects like cell structure, chemistry, physics, calculus and genetics. And that's just the beginning. The first year of the program is filled with those standard pre-med classes (at year's end, students receive a pre-med certificate).
The second year is actually a graduate year, packed with 13 credits one semester and 11 the second. Topics include human anatomy, medical biostatics, human histology and biochemistry. Full-time graduate study is considered nine credits, so it's a busy year, but at the end, students will only be about six credits shy of a master's degree in biology.
"The whole purpose of that second year is to make sure that they're really ready for that first year of med school," said Donna Fox, associate dean in Mason's College of Sciences and the director of the EMDP2 program at Mason. "We want them to be the class leaders. I think that can be accomplished. … The blessing of a private cohort is that they're all in the same boat: They're kind of just getting back into school. They're not afraid to ask questions. … I've been at Mason 22 years and they're probably the most inquisitive students I've ever had. It's wonderfully on-target questions, and just some of them, very deep questions about the material."
The program just celebrated its first anniversary and is welcoming its second class of students. The first class has only 10 students - five from the Army and five from the Air Force - although subsequent cohorts will consist of 25 students from all four services. Soldiers apply for the program through their commands, and must already have a bachelor's degree. The subjects of those degrees don't matter, but their GPAs must be a minimum of 3.2, Fox said.
The main thing, said Col. Jeffrey Hutchinson, associate dean of clinical affairs and chief diversity officer at the USUHS medical school, is that Soldiers show "excellence in their job. Their command will only recommend them if they are showing excellence so they need to continue doing that."
A practicing physician in adolescent medicine at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, Hutchinson sat on the applicant review board and serves as a mentor to the Soldiers in the program.
"I have a pretty good idea of who would make a good physician. The characteristics we look for are responsibility, of course," he said. "Almost every applicant had shown that. Throughout their careers, they had taken on more and more responsibility and they had proven themselves. … It takes a combination of intellect and communication and the desire to help other people."
He and the other members of the selection committee also looked for a genuine interest in medicine. All of the applicants wrote about a longtime desire to become doctors in their personal statements, but he wants more than that. They don't have to be medics - about half of the members of the first class aren't - but it helps if they've at least volunteered at hospitals, anything to show "that they have some idea what medicine is."
Sgt. 1st Class Joshua Richter, for example, had 15 years of experience in special operations, but he got to know his unit physicians well - they actually told him about the program - and cross-trained to serve as a medic when necessary and as an emergency medical technician.
"It was just kind of an interest of mine that had been cultivated over many years," he explained. "To be able to pursue it while on active duty is a really great opportunity."
"I kind of sat there in awe, like, 'Wow, I can't believe this is happening," agreed Staff Sgt. Claude "Alex" Blereau, a special operations flight medic. "I may have teared up. I'm not going to admit to that, but it may have happened. It was awesome. … It's the best thing that's happened to my Family for sure."
He started the program as a brand-new father, so his days and nights have been long, but he wouldn't change any of it. "It was all worth it. If you need me to stay up late at night and study to get good grades, I'll do that rather than be away from my Family for weeks at a time. It took awhile, but it all worked out fine."
That was the hardest part, the Soldiers agreed: It's been years since any of them have been in school full time and it took some getting used to. It took some time to work out a rhythm, to remember how to study and study well, to get used to not wearing a uniform every day - well, that part wasn't so hard. Students typically only wear their uniforms once a week.
"The initial month or so I think we were all in shock a little bit, trying to figure out the expectations of the instructors, our expectations of the program," Richter said. "Getting all of those to meet up was a little overwhelming at first. After the first month or so … we knew what we needed to do to succeed and things got much easier and much clearer."
That doesn't mean the coursework has been easy. It hasn't. A typical, 16-week organic chemistry class was squeezed into a five-week summer session, with extended classes and labs. "It was pretty intense," Richter admitted, adding he was relieved that they didn't have to take anything else while going through it. Meanwhile, Sgt. Steven Capen was stymied by physics and Blereau turned to a tutor to help him get through calculus, joking that "anything over my fingers and toes is difficult."
Still, it all started to come together, they said. "You start out with all of this pretty divergent coursework, physics, chemistry, but you start to realize that's all connected and interrelated, and when you start to see that happen, I think it's pretty awesome," Richter said.
"We've gotten to grow and think more scientifically," added Capen, a medic who actually has a bachelor's degree in biochemistry already. "That's something I think will really help us move forward into medical school."
Another part of the program is an intensive MCAT preparation course, and instructors and mentors are there to help the students with their medical school applications and personal statements. Some students took the MCAT this summer. "It was pretty challenging. I won't pull any punches there … but I can say that the preparation was very effective. … I feel confident that we did well," said Richter, who was one of the first to take the test, although Capen took a different version of the MCAT several years ago; psychology and sociology have since been added. Students have already started applying to medical schools and going on interviews in the fall.
They're required to apply to the USUHS medical school, which is where most of them want to go anyway because it's free and will train them to not only be doctors, but military doctors. They've also been encouraged to apply to civilian medical schools and the Health Professions Scholarship Program, however. Some of the schools in the running for Soldiers are Wake Forest, the University of Chicago, the University of Rochester and Eastern Tennessee.
Service members will automatically receive commissions upon acceptance to medical school, although they will need to find the time to attend an officer basic course at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, according to Green-Dixon.
If they attend USUHS, the students will incur an additional seven-year service obligation, and when you add that to the two-year preparatory program (which itself has a three-year payback) and nine-plus years of medical school and residencies, they'll be retiring from the Army. "It's kind of nice having your whole life planned out for the next 15 or 20 years," Capen joked.
The service members shouldn't have any problems getting into medical school, program officials agreed: They are laser-focused and driven - their collective GPA is a 3.82. Capen, who has a bachelor's in biochemistry, helps tutor many of his classmates, has a 4.0.
"When you have a lifetime of doing so many different tasks and now you can be focused on just one thing and have that maturity of life experience, you get outstanding students and that's what we have," said Hutchinson. "[Civilian medical schools] want them probably even more than we do. They see these five young men as people who would add so much to their school, both as far as outside life experience, maturity and proven ability. With what they did just this first year at George Mason, every school would look at them and say they absolutely have they potential to be great physicians."
Actually, he went on, they have the potential to be excellent military physicians because they've stood in their patients' shoes, or rather, boots. They know what it is to be an enlisted Soldier and go into combat and they will understand better than most what their patients are going through. "That's exactly what we need in military medicine."
On the off chance that someone doesn't make into medical school, however, he or she will still have options, said Green-Dixon. Service members can go back to their old jobs, better educated and with an additional three-year commitment to the Army. They would have five years to finish out that master's degree in biology. They could also apply for other commissioning programs. They'd be well qualified for the physician's assistant program, for example.
The program is designed to help service members succeed. According to Hutchinson, that's partly because the diversity of the enlisted ranks is unmatched anywhere else in the country, and the services want their officer and medical ranks to reflect that diversity. But it's also about retention and about rewarding some exceptional Soldiers.
"I think one outstanding thing about this program from the day I submitted my packet is that everyone is encouraging and they are motivated to see you succeed," Richter said. "Should you need any help, whether it's academically or administratively, there is someone willing to help you out … I commonly tell my colleagues that if you can't succeed in this situation, you might need to find a different path."
Editor's note: For more information about the EMDP2 program, check out a list of frequently asked questions on the USUHS website and watch interviews with the inaugural class.