MADIGAN ARMY MEDICAL CENTER, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. -- Every October, Physician Assistant Week honors the licensed medical providers who provide care for patients in garrison and while deployed. PAs diagnose and treat patients in collaboration with physicians and fulfill pivotal roles in combat units.

This year, the week began with a commencement.

Capt. Cassie Jo Saggus and Staff Sgt. Kieran Martin completed 29 months of intensive study to earn their Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies degrees from the University of Nebraska through the Interservice Physician Assistant Program at Madigan Army Medical Center on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash.

Martin's rank changed partway through the ceremony as he commissioned as a first lieutenant.

Unlike the doctor or the nurse, the role of physician assistant is not millennia old. This now vital member of the Medical Corps was born in the Vietnam War.

"This started with four Navy Corpsmen in Vietnam who had a wealth of knowledge, a huge amount of experience and training. They came back to the civilian populace and they had nowhere to use that. Luckily, an astute doctor at Duke University started writing a curriculum for this future program and in 1967, they graduated the first PAs," said John Slevin, a PA in Orthopedics at Madigan, as he spoke to the commencement ceremony for the 17-2 graduating class of the IPAP held in Letterman Auditorium at Madigan on October 7.

Slevin is himself a graduate of the IPAP who retired in 2011 after more than two decades of Army service and seven deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Though he originally enlisted in the infantry, he met two PAs who inspired him to enter the IPAP and change his career path.

"I could tell they were in charge; they were running the show," he said of the PAs in his unit. "They were medically and tactically proficient. They were the cornerstone of healthcare, is what I saw and I realized early on that's what I want to do."

Over two decades later, he still loves the profession and is glad he made that switch.

Slevin addressed the graduates telling them, "You guys are medical leaders. You will now be guiding your leadership on medical decision-making."

"I look at Cassie, she's already got two Bachelor's degrees, soon to be a Master's, has already been commissioned as a signal officer; she's already been a leader," he said.

"I look at Kieran here," he continued. "He graduated the Special Forces Qualification Course; he has trained, served and deployed with 10th Special Forces Group."

It is these leadership qualities that Col. Wilson Rutherford, IV, the chief of staff for the 7th Infantry Division, stressed in his words to the graduates.

"As a PA, you will be a mentor," he said.

Acknowledging that they will not be able to be everywhere they are needed, he advised them on their mentor role.

"That medical climate that you create," he said, "training medics to remain calm, to be competent at their skills and be confident in their ability to provide lifesaving efforts, extends your reach far across the unit and across the battlefield."

"As you go forward as a medical provider to your unit, you will save lives daily either directly or indirectly -- by stopping bleeding, administering lifesaving medications, listening to a troubled Soldier having behavioral health issues and so much more through the extension of the medics that you work with and mentor daily," Rutherford added.

Offering examples from his own career of service in tactical units, Rutherford pointed to another absolute requirement for the PA -- trust.

"The PA earns the trust of the formation through deeds, not words," he said.

"As a battalion commander in Afghanistan, where we had over 300 wounded including 26 amputees, it was our 6 PAs -- 1 per company -- that made Soldiers understand that in any fight at any time, that Soldiers would be cared for and would have a chance to make it home. The Soldiers were right in trusting their PAs; the PAs advertise it -- get to me and I will save you. And they did. Every single Soldier we could get to a PA at a company aid station made it home alive," he noted.

As Saggus prepares to move into her role as the PA for 1-37 Field Artillery Battalion, 1-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team on JBLM and Martin is set to depart for his PA position at Fort Hood, Texas, with the 1st Cavalry Division, Slevin gave them another piece of advice.

"You are lifelong learners. You have chosen a profession where you must continue to better yourself every single day. If you reach a point where you feel you are not still learning, then it's time to get a new job," he concluded.