• Defining Moment

    Forged on the Battlefield: A New Mission

    A veteran's career path began in Afghanistan.

    Defiining Moment Author

    Listen to 'Defining Moment'

    It was the second day of a 3-day air assault in Afghanistan. Our platoon was busy searching houses in 120° weather. The sun was beating intensely and we were running deadly low on water. We decided to set up a defensive position in a house while waiting for an airdrop of water and ammunition.

    During this lull, a command came to search the village across from our stronghold. My squad was slated to complete the next clearing mission, but everyone had their gear off and we were not prepared. Another squad, led by my best friend, decided to take this mission. My friend stepped on an IED—an improvised explosive device—and lost his life. Two other men from my company were killed on the mission, as well.

    That day caused a fundamental change in my thinking about my purpose on this earth. I felt that I needed to do something greater with my life—that, otherwise, the deaths of my brothers in arms would be in vain. It wasn't until we returned from Afghanistan, however, that I figured out what that higher purpose should be.

    I entered the medical retirement program, along with another soldier from my company who'd had an above-knee amputation after also stepping on an IED. What I witnessed within that program deeply upset me. There was a lack of care and meaningful treatment. As time went on, the doctors stopped seeing us, and program staff stopped providing mental health support to those who needed it. Furthermore, almost no reintegration services were offered.

    It was as if the military had decided we weren't of value to them anymore, so they didn't need to treat the collateral damage of our service to our country. I was deeply offended but also energized. I saw that it was up to me to take action to try to help those who felt lost as they prepared to leave their home in the military and face a new reality.

    This insight led me to decide to become a physical therapist (PT). This, I felt, was a profession that would allow me to still, in a sense, stand beside and behind my brothers and sisters in arms, helping to ensure that they would receive the level of treatment and understanding they deserve.

    Having struggled with many of the same issues they faced, I felt that I'd be able to connect with these veterans on a deeper level—that I'd have a valuable personal touch to add to the care I wanted to provide to veterans and service members. I decided early on that once I'm a licensed PT, I want to focus my professional energy and healing expertise on treating individuals with amputations, spinal cord injuries, and traumatic brain injuries.

    I'm originally from upstate New York, but at the time that I was in the medical retirement program I was stationed in Colorado. My plan had been to return to New York and complete my undergraduate degree, then apply to a physical therapist education program. However, after talking with peers at the local Veterans Affairs office, I contacted Cliff Barnes, PhD, an anatomy and neuroscience professor at Regis University (RU) in Denver. I talked to him about my past experiences in the military, why I wanted to become a PT, and my goals. He suggested I apply to RU for my undergraduate degree. I did so, and after graduating I applied and was accepted into the school's DPT program.

    As a Jesuit university, Regis is focused on core Jesuit values. Two are of the utmost importance to me: service to others and care for the entire person.

    During my time at RU, I've participated in many service activities—ranging from flood cleanups and judging sixth-grade science fairs to being an advocate for, and a speaker on, issues that veterans face. These experiences have reinforced the importance of my taking an active role in the community and seizing on any opportunity to help people heal. The school's values have become ingrained in who I am and how I want to practice as a PT. These values are essential, too, to maximizing the impact that PTs can have in the world.

    RU's focus on viewing each patient or client individually and holistically has shaped my perspective on how best to care for the whole person—by seeking out, identifying, and acting on his or her specific goals, needs, and wants when determining the optimal treatment plan.

    There is a huge problem of homeless veterans in our country. I believe that the best way to fix that is not simply to provide housing, but to do all we can to help homeless vets claim the lives they deserve. If we, as a health care community and a society, take the time and effort to meaningfully address the many physical and mental health issues that our veterans face, their housing and associated employment prospects will brighten, and their lives will change in positive ways.

    Veterans need to feel empowered. They need to be able to reclaim the sense of purpose they lost when their military mission ended. It is important for health care providers to understand that veterans want to be involved in their own treatment, need to be granted the power of input and choice, and must be given the tools they need to continue their lives with renewed purpose.

    I'm looking forward to the role that I will play as a PT in helping my fellow veterans overcome obstacles and pursue their dreams. I'll be fulfilling a pledge that dates back to that terrible, fateful day in Afghanistan.


    Your attitude and response to societal neglect are what really makes America and Americans great. I hope to work on the same issues and with similar populations when I graduate from my DPT program in 2019.
    Posted by Joel Rardin on 9/3/2017 10:17:42 AM
    Great story. I am the CEO of Gottsche. We have many Regis students that come here for clinics. Thank you for your service, and your dedication. Love your story. Is it okay to share with many?? I hope to meet you. Congrats on your DPT program and we too are committed to helping the Veterans and your pledge.
    Posted by cheryl shero on 9/5/2017 3:51:26 PM
    I am so humbled by your story, Nate, and grateful for your service and that of your brothers. So glad Cliff encouraged you to become a part of our Regis family. Hope Clin Ed is going well for you and look forward to your return to Regis this October. It is an honor to be considered your colleague. Blessings, Patti PT
    Posted by Patti PT on 9/10/2017 9:42:51 PM
    Nate, This is remarkable in the same way I found you to be when we worked together. I feel that we are kindred spirits in several ways and do hope that we are able to combine efforts toward some of our shared interests. When Cliff began telling me about this remarkable man he met, as he knew your story would be of interest to me. I am humbled and proud to having met and worked with you. You will go far,this world is a better place with you in it. Until we speak again, your friend, J.L. Barnes
    Posted by J.L. Barnes on 4/6/2018 10:05:44 AM

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