By Master Sgt. John Hughel | Oregon National GuardMarch 26, 2019
SALEM, Oregon -- Citius, Altius, Fortius is the motto for the Olympic games.
Translated from Latin, it means, "Faster, Higher, Stronger," encompassing the gains in human accomplishment and one's endless chase for constant improvement.
Although the refrain is often linked with the vigor of athletic excellence, it can apply to a trio of Oregon Army National Guard Soldiers (ORNG) and their medical pursuits.
As accomplished Soldiers with years of successful military service, ORNG Captains Tommy Vu and John Avery Harrell and Sgt. Zach Bolte are striving for higher challenges, pushing the limits of time and training in their quest toward advanced medical schooling.
The three Citizen-Soldiers have taken their experience from deployments, past training exercises, and real-world skills, and are committing themselves to become medical doctors (MD) and physician assistants (PA).
For outsiders, it might be easy to see their well-established accomplishments and quickly overlook a level of proven success. For each of these Soldiers, from Capt. Harrell's adeptness as a Black Hawk pilot, or Capt. Vu's proficiency in Health Service Administration and Sgt. Bolte's feats as a combat medic; their journey to advanced medical training has already been tested under fire during overseas deployments.
In August 2018, Harrell and Bolte started medical school at the Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU) in Portland. Vu, having completed a biology degree in 2009, was able to take advantage of a unique Army program propelling him back to school to complete a Master's in Physician Assistant studies.
During their mobilization with G Company, 1st Battalion, 189th Aviation, in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, both Harrell and Bolte served together during the 11-month deployment. The unit was split into three locations in the area of operations as Harrell first arrived in Kuwait and Bolte in Iraq. They both ended up in the third forward-deployed location (Syria) later in the cycle before returning to Oregon in December 2017.
"Even our bunks were set up beside each other," Harrell laughed, as he recalled the unique series of coincidences he and Bolte had in common. Beyond serving together in Syria and with their unit back home in Salem, the two had traversed through the same training sites, and ironically as far back to their college days at the University of Oregon in Eugene.
"We didn't know each other at the time, but we discovered later that we were in the same Human Physiology program in college," Harrell said, describing the Simultaneous Guard Program and his eventual commission in 2011. "I think we might have been a year apart, but I'm sure we had classes together and didn't know it."
After receiving his commission, he was off to U.S. Army Aviation Center at Fort Rucker, Alabama, for nearly 18 months of flight school instruction, focusing on flying the Black Hawk helicopter for the medevac unit.
For Harrell and Bolte, the time together during their 2017 deployment had them extremely focused on the mission. After Harrell's team had moved from Iraq into Syria, he led the build-up of a medevac site in eastern Syria. Moving his two platoons to new locations as operations continued to move ISIS fighters further south and east in Syria, his team advanced to more sites than any other medevac in a theater. By the end of the deployment, Harrell had flown more than 100 combat hours, completing 10 medevac missions as the pilot in command.
It was during their downtime when the two Soldiers began to connect on the next phase in life.
"I lean on him, he knew the process, he proofread my personal statements and applications, we practiced interview questions…we really bonded," said Harrell.
While Harrell was flying the missions, Bolte was putting his skills to work, performing multiple life-saving medevac missions. A seasoned noncommissioned officer (NCO), he led training and medical classes for his fellow medics, along with allied partners, ensuring they maintained their skills at the highest levels.
The drive to become a medical first responder began at a young age for Bolte, as well as a keen interest in the performance of the human body. He started his education at the University of Oregon but transferred back to Oregon State University, in his hometown of Corvallis, and enrolled in the paramedic program.
"In high school, I set my sights on becoming a paramedic," Bolte said, looking back at his undergraduate days. "I wanted to know more about the human body and going to school was fun…a lot more fun than working."
Eventually, he returned to Eugene and graduated from the University of Oregon in 2010. It was only after college that he enlisted in the Oregon Army National Guard in 2011 as a '68W' combat medic specialist. After finishing his Army medic school, like Harrell, he spent time at Fort Rucker, Alabama, taking on additional training in the flight medic course.
While deployed, his platoon leader selected him to lead training for multiple NATO forces teams, adapted his training style to assimilate coalition partners from Ukraine to Germany on best practice techniques.
Two years later in 2015, during the Operation Maple Resolve training exercise at Camp Wainwright, Alberta, Canada, Bolte would put some of these same teaching techniques to use as he coordinated cross training with Canadian medics on U.S. medevac doctrine and medical protocols. He performed multiple training missions and one real-world medevac mission from Camp Wainwright to the Edmonton hospital.
"He's a great teacher and was instrumental during the Maple Resolve exercise, guiding the Canadian's on how a designed medevac flight crew is set up and works as a single entity," said Capt. Daniel Russell, commander of G Company, 1-189 Aviation.
Russell has known Bolte and Harrell since before he became the company commander and has watched them develop as forerunners for other challenges. Knowing that they both applied to medical school was not out of the realm of possibility for either Soldier.
"Their personalities in many ways are quite different," Russell said. "I've known Avery (Capt. Harrell) since we first joined the unit. He's humble and soft-spoken, but I watched him become more assertive and grow as a leader, especially since the recent deployment because he was put in charge of multiple platoons in multiple locations."
As careful, detailed and diligent as Harrell's personality is, Russell described a few of their distinctions.
"He's (Bolte) outgoing and a natural teacher, and was quick to make friends with his other medical counterparts during the (Maple Resolve) training," Russell laughed, recalling his contagious disposition. "He got the nickname "Hero" because he ended up getting most of the flying missions; both training and real-world, mostly by chance during the exercise in Canada."
PATHWAYS TO NEW CHALLENGES
The unique circumstances that brought Harrell and Bolte to study at OHSU will allow them to stay in uniform, as they transfer to Medical Command in Salem, retaining their affiliation with the Oregon National Guard. For Capt. Vu, the pathway to elevating his military medical career was through the Interservice Physicians Assistance Program (IPAP).
Before becoming a member of the Oregon National Guard, Vu first served with the Nebraska Army National Guard, deploying to Kuwait in 2010 and Iraq in 2011 as a Medical Service administrator. Though he thrived in the responsibilities, he quickly realized he wanted a more active role with direct patient care.
"The desire to treat and directly assist patient recovery made me realize that I wanted a personal connection," he said.
A graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Vu discovered the Army's IPAP and applied after returning from his Iraq deployment. Phase I in the program at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, consists of basic medical science courses and develops a student's knowledge of critical medical concepts. For his Phase II, he spent more than a year at Fort Polk, Louisiana, supporting the base medical rotations requirements to graduate with a Master's in Physician Assistant (PA) studies in 2014.
"I was really lucky; the Army National Guard only has about 10 seats each year for this program," said Vu. "It was over two and a half years of school, all paid for by the military, all the while I was on active duty and finished with 'zero' education debt."
Now as a PA with the Oregon Army National Guard's 1249th Engineer Battalion, Vu has 12 medics under his guidance and is quick to profess the benefits of the IPAP.
"I want to get my troops the best resources and training available; whether it's to become a PA or to enroll in other medical schools; it is all about developing our Soldiers," said Vu.
The ability to not only keep Army Guard members in uniform but to advance their skills is a win-win for the Oregon National Guard.
"We (Harrell) both have the same approach toward being in the Guard," said Bolte. "It would be easy for us to get out of the Guard and just go to medical school and come back in later, but we like being part of this organization."
For Harrell, he sees his grandfathers as having foreshadowed his career. Both of his grandfathers served in WWII; one was a bomber pilot, and the other was a submariner who eventually became a physician.
"In essence, that became my philosophy as an aviator; to get medical care as quickly as possible to where it's needed," he said, echoing the spirit of the 'Dustoff' motto, "When I have your wounded."
For all three of these Soldiers, practically for Harrell and Bolte, they also share a determination much like one of their more famous University of Oregon alum and Track and Field Olympian, Steve Prefontaine.
"To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift," Prefontaine said when describing his desire to surpass previous distance running achievements. It's the same ambition found in all three Soldiers: to not rest on today's accomplishments, but an aspiration to test one's limits while pushing toward new challenges.