NY Army Guard medics complete intensive training to become PAs and officers

By Eric DurrJune 24, 2024

New York National Guard medics become physicians assistants
New York Army National Guard first lieutenants Adrian Smith, left, and John Gamalski are administered the oath of office by Major General Michel Natali, the assistant adjutant general, Army for the New York National Guard, during a promotion and award ceremony at the United States Military Academy at West Point on June 7, 2024. The two men were recognized for completing the Interservice Physician's Assistant Program with their degrees and promotions to first lieutenant. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Lt. Col Luis Garcia) (Photo Credit: Courtesy) VIEW ORIGINAL

WEST POINT, New York--Two New York Army Guard medics are now officers and physicians assistants after completing an intensive 29-month program run by the Army’s Medical Center of Excellence at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.

1st Lt. Adrian Smith and 1st Lt. John Gamalski also earned master’s degrees through the Interservice Physician Assistants Program—or IPAP for short-- following a year of clinical work in New York to include rotations at West Point’s Keller Army Community Hospital.

The “very demanding course” takes military medical personal and turns them into world-class PAs, the shorthand for physician assistants, according to Lt . Col. Luis Garcia, the New York Army National Guard’s deputy state surgeon .

Getting Soldiers through the course is a win for New York, because it is tough to recruit qualified PAs, and a win for the Soldiers, because PAs are in demand across the medical industry, Garcia added.

Enrolling experienced Soldiers to become PAs, rather than recruiting civilians, means that the new PAs already understand the military and Army medicine, he explained.

The two took their oaths as officers during a special June 7 ceremony at the United States Military Academy, presided over by Major General Michel Natali, the New York National Guard’s assistant adjutant general, Army.

PAs fill a critical role in Army medical care, Garcia said.

PAs are the primary medical provider at the battalion level and at forward aid stations in combat. They lead medical platoons and detachments, and in garrison environments provide care for Soldiers and their families.

Both Smith and Gamalski were great candidates for the IPAP school, Garcia said.

“Both of them were medics with extensive experience and they have experience with the battlefield and how to treat those patients,” Garcia said.

Smith and Gamalski said that becoming a PA was a goal they had set for themselves.

Gamalski who served six years in the 75th Ranger Regiment, and then six years in the New York Army Guard’s Medical Readiness Detachment, said he was inspired by PAs he’d served with.

“I worked under a lot of phenomenal medical leaders,” he explained.

Smith, who has served for 19 years as a medic, said “life happened”, and while working as a police officer and an EMT, he just never had the chance to reach that goal.

On the latest of his four deployments as a member of the 466th Area Medical Company, though, then Sgt. 1st Class Smith, said he decided he would enroll in the military PA course.

“And so, I did, and I got accepted and here I am,” he said.

Getting into the Army PA program is not as easy as that, though.

Applicants must have 60 credits worth of college courses in subjects ranging from chemistry to English, to human anatomy and Algebra. They need 3.0 grades in science and overall point averages of 2.5.

Applicants also must score well on the SAT test and the PA-CAT or Physician’s Assistant College Aptitude Test.

Getting accepted means diving into four quarters of academic work at “Fort Sam”.

“It’s kind of like freshman, through senior if you will,” Gamalski said.

“You are tested on everything from microbiology, biochemistry, and anatomy and physiology,” he said. “

And then as you progress through the different semesters it gets more and more intense and more and more medically focused.”

The students study cardiology, emergency medicine, nephrology—kidney health—urology, “and all your ‘ologies,” Gamalski said.

“I would describe it like drinking water through a fire hose,’” Smith said.

“We’re constantly learning medicine and being tested on it,” Smith said.

“There were tests every Monday and Friday on different subjects.”

The Army considers assignment to the class a permanent change of station. But Gamalski said he and his wife treated it like a deployment.

She remained at home in Middletown visited monthly.

Smith’s wife and two kids moved to San Antonio to squeeze some family time in.

“They’re the ones that got me through PA school,” Smith said.

The second phase of the school involves 52 weeks of clinical work at an Army hospital.

This brought Smith and Gamalski to Keller. That part of the course wrapped up in June.

“It was a great experience, a great education,” Smith said. “It was life-changing.”

Graduating has already changed his life, Smith said. He will be working in a medical/surgical intensive care unit in Charlotte, North Carolina, and driving to Binghamton to drill with the 204th Engineer Battalion.

Gamalski, assigned to the 466th Area Medical Company in Queensbury, said his next goal, is to become a flight surgeon.

Then, he said, he wants to work for a busy hospital.

“I want to continue that drink from the fire hose of mentality of learning medicine, doing medicine, so I can do better for the Guard and be better prepared for Guard deployments.”