By Army Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod
1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division
FORT BRAGG, N.C., March 21, 2011 - From the ski slopes of Montana to the bomb-laced desert highways of western Iraq to the expert field medical badge course in the pine forests here, an 82nd Airborne Division medic is navigating his own path to a hands-on career in health care.
"I am applying to IPAP right now," said the 20-year-old Billings, Mont., native while preparing to navigate the first of three scenario-based testing lanes for the expert field medical badge. As a medic attached to a company of combat engineers, Meyer recently spent a tour in Iraq, traveling the roads between Ramadi and Fallujah hunting for roadside bombs.
Army Capt. Jessica Larson, a physician assistant attached to Meyer's brigade, said the Army's PA program is an excellent choice. It rates consistently as one of the country's top physician assistant programs, she said, and the financial support afforded in exchange for service takes a great burden off students.
"I went to a state school, so my expenses were a third of a normal PA program," said Larson, a native of Chicago who left a lucrative career in aviation engineering when she was moved by amputees and other service members recovering from wounds received in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"My schooling, housing, books, food and other living expenses cost $106,000 for two and a half years," she continued, "which included my rotation to Africa. However, without my scholarship, it would have cost around $134,000. PAs who attend private schools are typically coming out with over $200,000 in debt."
Through the Army's Health Profession Loan Repayment Program, civilian-trained PAs can have their student loans repaid up to $120,000 in exchange for a three-year additional duty service obligation, which is the route that Larson took. The downside, she said, is that students remain civilians during schooling, so they are not drawing Army pay.
"Meyer is saving a lot if he goes to [the Interservice Physician Assistant Program]," Larson said. "To come from that excellent background with no expenses, while drawing either lieutenant or Officer Candidate School pay for those two years, is a huge stress off the education process.
"However," she added, "he is giving back with four years of service as an Army PA, and graduates deploy immediately. Being gone from your family for a year is a nonquantifiable cost, too."
Becoming a physician assistant typically is not a stepping stone to becoming a medical doctor, Larson said, as much of the schooling is redundant. Soldiers considering one or the other should study both career fields and ask lots of questions, she added, because the Army uses physicians and physician assistants in very different ways.
For Meyer, who first treated injuries in Montana as a part-time ski patroller at Red Lodge Ski Resort during high school, a priority is to get more hands-on experience as a provider before committing to the long road into medical school. If Meyer decides to become a physician, he'll use the Army's Health Provider Scholarship Program to fund medical school, he said.
"I have had the full support of everyone in my chain of command, and they have been very helpful with writing letters of recommendation and allowing me the time to complete my packet," Meyer said. "If all else fails, I can still exit the Army with a master's degree and a useful skill.
"There are a lot of different routes that I can take to arrive at a point where I can start my [scholarship] packet," he added, "but after doing a bit of research, I feel that [the physician assistant program] is best tuned to my goals."