What is veterinary medicine like in the Army?
Basically, the Army gives veterinarians the opportunity to do all the types of practice that are possible out in the civilian world. Most Army vets start out doing a few years of mostly small animal clinical medicine, but then you get to specialize into a number of different fields, including clinical specialties (surgery, radiology, etc), public health, pathology, lab animal, research, etc.
During your first few years as a “regular” Army vet (before specializing), you’ll also do a good bit of food safety work and public health education. I’ve gotten to travel and live all over the world in the last three years, so that is an added bonus as well. The main negative is not being totally in control of your life: at the end of the day, the Army controls you and can send you wherever you are most needed.
How can I make myself a competitive applicant for the HPSP scholarship?
The most important thing you can do now to make yourself a competitive applicant is to excel academically in your first semester of vet school. It seems like most people who get chosen for the HPSP as first-year vet students have close to a 4.0 in that first semester. It’s not the best way to distuingish who will make the best Army officer, but unfortunately it seems to be a key factor.
You’ll also want to really polish your letter of intent to make sure it’s very clear that you understand the role of an Army vet and that you are passionate and ready to take this commitment on.
Finally, you should do all you can to make sure you have strong letters of recommendation. If you can get one from a military officer or even better an Army veterinarian who you have worked with, that would help, but it’s not a requirement at all. I didn’t have anyone with military experience among my references.
What are my chances of getting this scholarship? Is there an average acceptance rate and/or average GPA, experience every applicant should have? Am I too old?
Unfortunately I can’t give you any hard stats on numbers for the application. I’ve heard that it’s usually around 10-20% acceptance for the three-year scholarship, and then it gets less competitive as you get further into vet school (since the commitment is the same but you are getting less scholarship money). For GPA, you probably need to be pretty close to a 4.0 for your first semester of vet school, since that’s one of the only ways the selection board can distinguish people. Not a requirement at all, though. If you can get some experience working with an Army vet that would be helpful, but again not required. I don’t think you’ll be too old. I know several Army vets who started out in their mid-30s. There is an age limit for people coming onto active duty (35 I think?) but I know you can get a waiver for that.
What other expectations are there while you’re in vet school once you’re accepted to the HPSP program?
Really not much. You have the option to do up to six weeks of Active Duty Training (ADT) each year, but you can also just do this at school while being a student. I didn’t buy a uniform or do anything military until I graduated from vet school.
I consider myself pretty healthy, but not quite a marathoner. How fit should I be when I apply?
Your fitness doesn’t really matter when you apply, except that you don’t want your recruiter to get the impression that you’re a total slacker in that regard. The medical screening is focused on medical history and current issues, not physical fitness. You don’t have to pass a physical fitness test until you actually start on active duty after graduation.
I have a medical condition / item in my medical history that I’m worried will prevent me from getting accepted into the military. Do you think it will?
You would have to begin the application process to determine if you could get a medical waiver for that specific condition. Basically the Army needs to be sure that you don’t have any pre-existing conditions that would prevent you from being able to do the job of an Army veterinarian. I’m always surprised to hear what people got waivers for and then what other people got rejected for, so it seems to be kind of a hit or miss process.
Do you have to enlist before you find out if you got into the HPSP?
No, you don’t have to enlist before finding out about the HPSP! That would be scary. Enlisting is what you do when you become an enlisted soldier, not an officer. If you enlisted, you would be committing yourself to at least four years of active duty as an enlisted soldier before having the chance to even go back to vet school. So don’t do that!
I’m thinking about enlisting and then going back to school to become a veterinarian. Will the Army pay for me to go to school while I’m serving?
It’s definitely more common for Army veterinarians to come into the Army as officers either during or after finishing veterinary school. However, I do know of a few exceptions who have done just what you are talking about. They originally enlisted as regular soldiers, either as vet techs or something totally unrelated. After serving for four years, they got the Army to pay for them to go back to college for an undergraduate degree. This could be either through a ROTC program, a military academy, or just using your GI Bill benefits at any civilian program. Then you could continue on to veterinary school through the HPSP program. If you have prior enlisted service you are eligible for a four year HPSP scholarship. So yes, it is possible to go the route that you’re thinking of. Probably a little bit harder to stay on course, but if you are driven and stick with your goals you can do it! Good luck.
If you don’t get the HPSP are there other loan repayment programs the Army offers?
The Army does have other loan repayment programs. Both active duty and the reserves have a signing bonus of loan repayment for vets who are commissioned after they have already graduated. These programs aren’t quite as generous financially as the HPSP, but they’re still a great deal and something to keep in mind.
Is there any type of information that you can give me on how to go about writing this letter of intent?
The most important thing to focus on is remembering to write for your audience. Your audience in this case is a panel of high-ranking military officers: some medical, maybe a vet or two, but coming from all backgrounds. So, although you do need to give them confidence that you’ll be a great Army veterinarian, you need to convince them even more that you will also be a great Army officer (which involves a lot more than just our veterinary training).
I remember being a bit generous in the way I portrayed my patriotism and desire to serve because that is what another officer had advised me to do. These applications are being looked over by a panel of senior officers from all sorts of backgrounds, so they want to see that you’re serious about more than just the money and the vet side of things.
As a way to help yourself in putting together your final draft, try to imagine this setting:
You walk into a big conference room at the Pentagon, and seated along the far side of a long table are about 20 Army officers, mostly colonels but a couple generals as well. Some of them have medical backgrounds, and there’s even one veterinarian. But the others are infantry, artillery, intelligence, and supply officers. They’re all decked out in their dress blue uniforms, complete with combat patches, service medals, the full nine yards. And they’re looking expectantly at you, walking in the door and coming up to the table to stand before them.
Why are they looking at you? Because you have five minutes to explain to them why they should choose you as a veterinary officer in the Army. Why should they choose you over hundreds of other veterinary students who have similar academic performance? How are you going to make our country safer and uphold the honor and tradition of the military? Now get talking! 🙂
Does that help you at all? That’s honestly what this is, except that they are reading your statement rather than hearing from your mouth. Try to imagine how you would talk to this intimidating group of men and women. What would you say to differentiate yourself, to make them see that you’re serious about this desire to put on a uniform and serve your country.
Once you graduate from vet school, what does the army training entail?
All vets go to the Basic Officer Leadership Course at Ft Sam Houston in San Antonio for about 3 months. The first half of this is general military training for all health care professionals, and the second half is vet-specific. Currently all new vet officers also have to go to a year-long internship program (FYGVE) which is supposed to teach you a lot more about being a military vet. Unfortunately this year does not count towards your three-year active duty commitment.
Do Army veterinarians have to go to basic training like other soldiers?
Veterinary officers go through a basic leadership course that is specifically designed for healthcare officers. It is not quite as mentally or physically intense as traditional bootcamp that enlisted soldiers go through, but it is still difficult for some.
Can you elaborate on the actual number of years I would be committing to the Army?
The HPSP contract includes three years of active duty and another five years of “inactive” (Individual Ready Reserve or IRR) duty. Basically any military commitment is for this minimum of eight total years.
The five years on IRR typically do not require any actual service to the military. From what I’ve heard, there was a period of about 30 years when no veterinarians were called up from their IRR time. That ended around 2004 I think when one or two vets were called in due to shortages brought on by our two wars. It happened once and hasn’t happened again since then.
So it’s theoretically possible to be called up during that time, but unlikely. You would always be called back in service as a veterinarian in the Army — it’s not like they could say okay now you’re going to be an infantry Soldier or something.
I like the idea of joining the Army as a vet, but I’m worried about the potential dangers involved with combat. Are veterinarians ever actually out on the front lines?
I can understand your concerns about combat and the dangers of life in the military. It’s totally natural and something all of us feel to one degree. I think the decision about whether or not it’s “worth it” for the financial benefits and professional opportunities is unique to every individual. I personally think it has been worthwhile and am thankful that I was given this opportunity.
It’s important to realize that as an Army veterinarian your main purpose is to support U.S. interests, and specifically relating to our involvement in combat situations around the world. It’s true that most Army vets never personally have to fire their weapon or get shot at in combat, but this does happen and it’s something that you theoretically have to be okay with. I know of several of my colleagues who have been injured in Iraq and Afganistan, and one veterinarian was killed in Iraq. So if this is a definite rule-out for you, it might mean that the Army is not the best place to consider working.
I hope you’ll check out my short story for a more personal and action-filled taste of life for a vet and military working dog in the combat zone. This is a pretty fair representation of the type of activity veterinarians see in combat. The primary dangers are from roadside bombs and random attacks from “friendly” forces, which can’t really be prevented or predicted. We are always there to use our veterinary training — we’re never simply tasked to go knock down doors or search for bombs or anything like that.
Do Army veterinarians ever carry a gun?
Army veterinarians only carry weapons when they are deployed in combat environments. In Afghanistan and Iraq, for example, we have to have our weapon (usually an M9) on us at all times. I spent a year in Egypt as part of a peace-keeping mission, and I had to wear my weapon whenever I left our camp on the Sinai peninsula. Back in the U.S., the only times we would use weapons are when we go to a firing range for practice.
Can veterinarians attend Airborne, Air Assault, Pathfinder, Ranger, or Special Forces schools?
Yes to all of them! Airborne and Air Assault are pretty common, while the others are less so. One of my commanders was a veterinarian who earned his Special Forces tab a few years back, and there are veterinarians assigned with all the SF Groups and with the Rangers. A veterinarian friend of mine just successfully completed Ranger school and got his tab a few months ago.
Besides the tuition payment, what is the compensation like for a new Army veterinarian?
The pay and benefits are very good compared to our civilian veterinary colleagues. When I started out four years ago at an assignment in the U.S., I was making about $75,000 a year. Now while assigned in Europe I am making about $100,000 a year. It can be kind of tough to calculate the exact salary because of all the different types of special pay, housing/living allowances, etc, and that stuff changes depending on where you are located.
What kind of further training and education opportunities does the Army offer to veterinarians?
Participating in the Long-Term Health Educational Program (LTHET) is one of the big benefits available to veterinarians in the Army. There are a ton of different options available, from clinical residencies (usually medicine, surgery, E/CC, radiology, behavior, and occasionally equine medicine) to lab animal residency to pathology residency to PhD programs in anything you can imagine.
A new option is to get an MPH while doing some other self-designed training program, and this is what a couple of people have used to do their zoo/wildlife residency programs.
Of course, all of these programs come with another commitment of 3-5 years on active duty as payback, so that’s the big trade-off.
The great thing, however, is that you do continue to get your regular salary and military benefits through the LTHET program. So you could be doing a PhD at Harvard, fully paid for by the Army, and still be getting your salary of around $100k per year and accruing years towards the 20 year retirement. Same with an MPH program or other residency. That is a lot nicer than the $30-40k civilians will make in most PhD or residency programs.
What other types of pay are Army veterinarians eligible for? The basic pay listed online seems pretty low.
After you’re board-certified, you get an additional $5000 per year on top of your regular salary. Not amazing, but a nice bonus. And there are also a few other special pays that veterinarians get above the numbers you’ll see on the pay charts. They depend on how many years you commit to active duty but are at a minimum $2500 per year. One important thing to notice about the military pay charts is that the don’t include the housing allowance. This is a significant part of your salary. For example, when I was at Ft Belvoir in VA, my BHA was around $2400 per month, so that’s an additional $27k per year when you compare to civilian salaries.
Does the Army allow your wife and children to be with you overseas? Can you tell me more about what your personal life is like in the Army?
Good question, and these are some of things I plan to write more about in articles about life as an Army vet post-vet school. The good news is that my family is with me here in Italy now, and we’ll be together here for three years! I’m usually traveling somewhere else in Europe or Africa for at least a week every month, but otherwise my job is a pretty regular schedule so I have lots of time to spend with my family. Feel free to check out my wife’s blog at: http://www.beccagarber.com for her perspective on family and personal life in the Army.
However, this was kind of a reward after being separated while I was on an unaccompanied assignment in Egypt for a year. I got the news about that deployment just a couple of months after Becca and I got married, so at that point I wasn’t very happy with the work/life balance in the Army.
We have actually gotten back to the States about every four months or so since we’ve been in Italy, with a combination of training or conferences for me, free military flights, and lots of frequent flier miles. This has made it easier to be so far away from the rest of our family and friends. Being in Sicily, we are also somewhere that people like to visit so we’ve been able to host lots of guests as well!
Can I bring my pets with me on military assignments?
Good question about your own pets and a military lifestyle. As you can imagine, most Army vets have pets just like veterinarians everywhere! We can bring them with us to any regular assignment, both in the U.S. and overseas. Here in Sicily there are a ton of military families who have brought their pets with them — those are my patients! If you are deployed to a combat zone or sent on a short-term assignment to a more remote location (like I was to Egypt, but could also be places like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, etc) then you won’t be able to bring your pets with you. That’s where kind friends or family have to step in…
Is it possible for a single parent to be an Army veterinarian?
My blunt and honest opinion is that yes, a single parent can make a career or even just spend a few years as an Army veterinarian. Actually, the vet that I replaced here in Sicily was a single mom, stationed overseas, and she seemed to do fine with that situation. The military tries to be very accommodating to different family situations, and there are usually decent childcare options available. However, you would have to expect that at some point during your commitment/service you would be called on to deploy or go on another unaccompanied assignment where you couldn’t bring your son. You would have to be confident in the family or friends that you had arranged to care for him if and when this occasion arose.
Most veterinary jobs in the Army are pretty comparable in terms of the hours required to other civilian jobs as a vet. You’ll be on call and occasionally have to perform after-hours and weekend duties, but this is the exception to the rule. Other than a long deployment, the hardest thing on families of all varieties are the shorter trips required for trainings, conferences, and other missions. You would be able to bring your son along on some of these, at your own expense, but not all of them.
As long as you are willing to set up support networks and ask for help, then I don’t think life for you or your son would be unduly difficult. I know that I appreciate my wife’s support every day and can’t imagine raising our kids and working full-time without her, but I know it’s possible and I see it in my colleagues on a regular basis.
What are the negative aspects of being an Army veterinarian?
The biggest negative is that ultimately you are not really in control of your life. At the end of the day, the Army can tell you to go wherever it needs you to do whatever job it needs you to do, regardless of your current family situation, career desires, education, etc. I was sent to Egypt for a year just five months after getting married.
Another big negative for me is that the Army as an organization and the Vet Corps specifically don’t seem very supportive of individual thinking or creativity. I am used to being a leader through innovative ideas and new strategies, but in the jobs I’ve had so far these skills have not been utilized or encouraged. This is probably the main reason that I’m seriously thinking about getting out after my commitment is over. I’ve still had some amazing experiences and don’t regret my decision to join, but it is definitely frustrating at times.
Would you make the same decision again?
The Army has required a number of sacrifices on my part, which a lot of people might not be willing to make. I’ve had to spend a lot of time away from my wife and little kids. I have to deal with annoying people and bureaucratic systems that don’t make much sense. And most of all, I’ve had to delay many of my own dreams for my career during this time. Most of what I have done in the last five years is small animal medicine and food safety inspection. Sure, there are occasionally other more interesting things that I get to be involved in, but these are few and far between.
That said, I’m really glad I decided to go the Army route. When my commitment is up next summer (after five years on active duty), I will be debt-free and able to pursue whatever route I want to without having this financial burden and urgency hanging over my head. The HPSP scholarship was worth about $200,000 to me, and I’ve been making close to $100,000 per year in the Army, so those are not numbers to laugh at.
Did you find that joining the Army helped further your career as “an uncommon veterinarian” or do you see it as a smart move, but ultimately peripheral to your final career goals?
I have to say that my experience has more been seeing it as a smart move but ultimately peripheral to my final career goals. I thought it might be different, and I was excited to be able to jump right into the “public health framework” right out of school with my DVM/MPH/MS, but in reality I’ve just been on the same track as every other new grad Army vet. I mostly do a mix of small animal clinical medicine and food safety, with a good dose of administrative managerial work thrown in. It’s rare that I actually get to think about things that really interest me in my Army job — that’s part of the reason I started up my site, to help re-inspire myself!
How much time will be devoted to public health/food safety? I want to have as much interaction with patients as possible!
Unfortunately this can really be dependent on what assignment you get. There are some places where you will be doing up to 80% small animal clinics and only 20% administrative, food safety, and other work. However, the majority of new graduate jobs will be closer to 60-40 or even 50-50. It’s also possible that you could get thrown into a position where you only get a day of clinics a week due to all the other demands on you as a manager and food auditor. That’s unlikely, especially for a new grad, but it’s always possible.
The Vet Corps is moving towards requiring all new grads to go through a year long internship program that will train you up on all the different tasks of being a veterinary officer and also provide more in-depth clinical training like a regular internship. There are also a couple of internship slots at the military working dog specialty center in San Antonio for new grads who are especially interested in clinical medicine.
Does being a veterinarian for the Army open up the opportunity to travel around the U.S. and the world?
Yes, being a vet in the Army opens up all sorts of cool travel opportunities. There are permanent duty assignments all over the U.S. and around the world, and then the military also sends us out on temporary missions to all sorts of other places. In my current assignment in Italy, I am often traveling to somewhere else in Europe or Africa for about a week out of every month. I have been to over 50 countries, and many of these were on military missions.
Assuming there are a certain set of protocols that must be followed as an Army Veterinarian, do you still feel that you are able to make case by case clinical decisions?
We are actually quite free to practice how we want. The only specific guidance that I am obligated to follow relates to our anesthesia standards. We have a drug worksheet with a bunch of different drug combinations and formulas based on different types of patients, and we’re supposed to pick one of those for each anesthetic case. I’ve never wanted or needed to do something outside of these possibilities, but I know that some of my colleagues get annoyed by it.
Do you find that as part of the Army you are exposed to opportunities in wildlife and conservation?
Unfortunately the Army Veterinary Corps is actually not a great place if you want to do mostly zoo or wildlife/conservation work. All of my experiences with these species have come from before I graduated vet school and joined the Army. You probably wouldn’t get the opportunity to work with wildlife or non-traditional species during your first few years. Almost all new vets in the Army have to spend 3-5 years doing the more typical combination of small animal clinical medicine, food safety, and people management.
The only way to do a residency in zoo/wildlife medicine through the Army would be by getting selected for a Long Term Health Education Program that involves completing an MPH with an “operational track”. The operational track can be almost anything, and in the last few years a couple of Army vets have used this program to do the zoo/wildlife residency. I’m not eligible for this program because I already had my MPH, so that was a big bummer for me. Other options would be a PhD that involves wildlife somehow or a lab animal residency, which involves a whole spectrum of species and is a combination of clinical and research work.
You could only start this program after 4-5 years of regular assignments on active duty, including at least one overseas tour. And you would also need to be aware that you probably wouldn’t be able to use your residency-earned training in your follow-on assignments, unless you happened to get lucky with the Navy marine mammal program. You would owe another five years of active duty time if you did a residency like this.