Today, it’s my pleasure to share another journey from armed service to medical school. Josh Caldwell graduated from West Point in 2008 and commissioned as an Aviation officer. He is currently a member of Harvard Medical School’s Class of 2019.
Like many other veterans who decide to go to medical school, I desired to become a physician long before I started my military career. As a high school student, I assumed my educational trajectory would take me to a civilian college immediately followed by medical school. Like so many of the young men and women in my generation, however, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 motivated me to seek a path of military service – a path which ultimately led to attending the United States Military Academy at West Point. When I was a cadet at West Point, I thought that my decision to become an Army Aviator would likely end my chances of becoming a doctor someday. My country was at war and, on a regular basis during lunch the name of another recent West Point graduate who had died serving his country while deployed would be read over a loudspeaker to the rest of the Corps of Cadets. I could not envision a post-graduation plan that did not include serving alongside my classmates in Afghanistan or Iraq; the idea of sitting in the safe confines of a classroom while my best friends led soldiers in harm’s way was repugnant.
However, after my first deployment to Afghanistan, with the troop surge drawing to a close and the US tentatively beginning to curtail the combat role of Americans, I began to wonder what my post-military plans would hold. I was disenchanted with the Army’s human resources bureaucracy which seemed most adept at only retaining those without other options, the lack of junior officer autonomy to enact real and meaningful change, and what I perceived to be a relentless war on independent thinking and intellectualism. As I watched my most talented peers in the officer corps abscond to greener pastures – business school, law school, and consulting – I knew I would do the same.
My thoughts turned to my old dream of medical school, but the process seemed daunting. Though I had a degree in Nuclear Engineering, I lacked many of the biology and chemistry basic prerequisites for medical school and would need to prepare extensively for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). I would be out of undergrad for six years by the time I would take the exam. I started by turning to the American Association of Medical Colleges’ (AAMC) Medical School Admissions Requirements (MSAR) website. For less than $30, I was able to compare the prerequisite requirements for every US MD program as well as other important information like their acceptance rate, and average GPA and MCAT score of their successful matriculants. I started by enrolling at a local university, deciding to take on the challenge of taking Organic Chemistry I&II simultaneously along with Biology I. Luckily, I was able to piece together a schedule that would allow for me to work full time as an O-3 on full flight status, preparing for another deployment, while still fulfilling the lecture and lab requirements of these courses. After a harrowing semester, I deployed again to Afghanistan.
Although I had not yet completed all of the key prerequisites (as well as some courses I would highly recommend before starting medical school, such as biochemistry, genetics, and cell and molecular biology), I decided to devote all of my spare time while deployed to studying for the MCAT. I used the Kaplan books and practice tests and, by the end of the 9 month deployment, was able to raise my practice tests from 24 for my first attempt to ~40 consistently (old scoring scale). Again, I was very fortunate that my chain of command was very supportive of my plan to attend medical school and worked hard to allow me to travel home to take the MCAT during my deployment by acting as a “casualty escort officer.” A big lesson I learned from that experience was that it wasn’t absolutely essential to complete all of the prerequisite coursework before studying for and crushing the MCAT. It was far more important to my success that I studied hard and consistently for a long period of time (instead of cramming) than taking a full year of biology, advanced biology/chemistry electives, etc.
When I returned to Afghanistan, and once I knew I had a solid MCAT score under my belt, I began the application process. I applied broadly to a total of 24 programs and used the MSAR to target my applications to 8 schools I considered a “reach” based on my stats/bio/research background, 8 that I thought I had an excellent chance of gaining admission to, and 8 that I felt were “safety” programs. Before I had returned home from deployment, I was filling out an enormous tide of secondary applications. Once relatively assured of admission to a medical school, by virtue of a robust MCAT score, I began the process of resigning my commission in earnest – while still deployed.
After returning to the US, and now with an ETS date scheduled, I enrolled in additional coursework to fulfill the remainder of my pre-med requirements and to better prepare me for the basic science requirements in medical school. As the interview requests trickled in, I was able to withdraw from programs I was less interested in and focus my efforts on interviewing at more attractive programs. I’ll never forget the day in early March when I received a letter from Harvard informing me that, out of more than 6000 applicants that year, I had been selected for a seat in the Class of 2019.
My path to medical school was non-traditional in many different dimensions. I began the process as a commissioned officer who hadn’t been in school in a half-decade, taking classes at a local university at the same time I was juggling an active duty position as an Apache helicopter pilot. I ended the process taking the MCAT and writing my AMCAS application mid-deployment and eventually ETS-ing after I was accepted to the program of my dreams. I think that every veteran has a unique path to medicine – some are fortunate to have the circumstances that allow them to adequately prepare and assemble a competitive application while on active duty. Others are likely far better positioned to ETS before returning to school or completing a post-bacc program. No matter which path you take to medicine, as man or woman who has served in combat while deployed, you unquestionably bring a unique and highly valued perspective to the practice of medicine that any admissions committee will recognize.