FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas (May 29, 2012) -- A new accreditation is enabling graduates of the respiratory therapy program here to walk away with an associate's degree and eligibility for national certification.

The Interservice Respiratory Therapy Program, hosted by Fort Sam Houston's Medical Education and Training Campus and Brooke Army Medical Center, is the only respiratory therapy program in the Defense Department sanctioned by the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care.

"As an accredited program, we can attract the best and brightest respiratory therapists," said Lt. Col. (Dr.) Pedro Lucero, BAMC's chief of pulmonary and critical care medicine. "And, once program graduates leave the military or return to a civilian job, they have a marketable skill set."

The three-phase program, which encompasses classroom and hands-on training, equips Army and Navy students to work with medical professionals who diagnose and treat patients with breathing and cardiopulmonary diseases.

First, students complete several months of general education courses at Thomas Edison State College, followed by a month of general medical courses. Students then begin 16 weeks of classroom instruction, conducted at METC.

The 16-week phase two -- a stringent, hands-on portion -- takes place in San Antonio Military Medical Center.

Overall, students learn ventilation therapy, pulmonary function testing, infection control, cardiopulmonary drug administration and critical patient care through a mix of lectures, group activities, demonstrations, hands-on instruction and clinical practice.

Graduates walk away with an associate's degree in applied science with an emphasis in respiratory care and eligibility to take the national certified respiratory therapy test, which is a stepping stone for a state license, Lucero explained. Army and Navy students have a more than 96 percent pass rate for the CRT, he added.

This accreditation marks a turning point for military respiratory therapists, he said, particularly for reservists. In the past, he explained, reserve respiratory therapists would graduate from the course and return to their former jobs because, without a credential, they were unable to work in their field. Now, after earning their certification, they can score a job in a hospital or department that offers respiratory services.

This keeps their skills fresh when they're called on to deploy, "and we want the highest quality respiratory therapists deploying," Lucero said.

Additionally, an accreditation will help to draw highly qualified people to the program, the doctor said, noting it's already helped boost students' motivation to succeed.