“Okay, thanks again Sergeant. I’ll be in touch within a couple of weeks to let you know my final decision.”
Click. I closed my little flip phone (yes, this was way back in 2005) and just stood there for a couple of minutes. Wow, I thought. This is it, my ticket to a totally different life than I ever imagined as a vet. But now I actually have to make a decision.
Officer First, Veterinarian Second
I had approached the whole application process for the HPSP scholarship with the idea that I simply wanted to see if it might even be an option. I took some kind of strange comfort in the fact that I hadn’t committed to anything yet. Sure, I had done a lot of research and spoken with a number of Army veterinarians about their experiences, but I still didn’t feel ready to actually make the decision.
But now the option was there. I was being offered a three-year, all expenses paid, free ride for the rest of my time in veterinary school. All I had to do was sign on the dotted line and commit three years of my life to active duty as an officer in the U.S. Army.
That last phrase is important: “an officer in the U.S. Army.” Even though I was especially selected for my veterinary expertise, the Army sees me first and foremost as simply another officer and soldier. I didn’t really understand how significant this distinction was at the time of my decision, so I hope that I can share this reality with you.
I am an officer first, and a veterinarian second.
If you are considering the Army route to help pay for vet school, you need to realize that it’s not like any other job as a veterinarian. The Army is not simply another employer, paying you for your skills, like VCA or Banfield or your neighborhood vet clinic.
The Army also expects me to be a responsible leader, making weighty decisions that impact the safety of our soldiers and American citizens around the world. My primary role is to support the military’s diverse missions in protecting U.S. interests from all enemies, foreign and domestic. Sometimes this involves clinical care of animals using my veterinary training.
You’re probably saying to yourself, “Yeah, yeah, I get it. But really you’re just working as a vet, right?”
And I have to respond honestly, “No, not really.” An Army veterinarian’s day-to-day job is completely dependent on the type of assignment he or she is in, and I’ll get into the details a lot more in future articles about my own three assignments so far.
But we all have to qualify as proficient on various weapons on a regular basis, participate in vehicle rollover and convoy planning exercises, and march in formation for miles with a heavy backpack and full combat gear. Many of us spend months or years in combat environments, facing the regular possibility of a violent injury or death. Some of us jump out of airplanes and spend months learning to survive out in enemy territory.
So no, we’re not just working as vets. That’s usually been a fun thing for me, but it’s not for everyone, and it’s important to understand this reality.
Last-Minute Doubts and Concerns
But back to that cold Massachusetts spring as a first year vet student, naively unaware of all the life implications that my pending decision would have.
I had two primary concerns. First, I was worried that I might not have the chance to develop into a proficient clinical veterinarian by going right into the Army. This was a frequent complaint I had heard from the Army veterinarians I had spoken with: they often didn’t have the on-the-job mentorship that they would have liked in the first assignment out of school.
Even though I knew I probably didn’t want to be a clinician for most of my career, I still wanted to be a good veterinarian and didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity to solidify my expertise by getting a solo practice first assignment. This shouldn’t be as much of a concern for current applicants, however, because most new Army vets are now required to go through a year-long internship program at one of five big Army veterinary hospitals around the country.
My second concern was that these years in the Army would keep me from being able to pursue my greatest passions in the veterinary world surrounding wildlife conservation, public health, infectious diseases, and economic development. I knew that I probably wouldn’t really be able to get my dream job with this stuff in the Army, and I was right about that.
After a few weeks involving many conversations with family and friends, much prayer, and lots of phone calls from my recruiter (he needed me to make the commitment in order to get credit for the whole process), I finally said yes.
I decided that the financial freedom offered through the HPSP scholarship would more than compensate for a few years of not being able to directly pursue my grandest career dreams. And so far, this has turned out to be a good decision. I will finish my commitment to the Army in the summer of 2014 with no student loan debt and the resulting freedom to make my next career decisions with a lot more flexibility than I would have otherwise had.
The Commissioning Ceremony
And so after another round of signing papers and second guessing, I found myself a couple of months later raising my right hand to take my oath and accept my commission. We had chosen to hold the event on the historic Boston Common, site of some of our country’s first patriotic acts. Every officer’s commission comes officially from the President of the United States, and mine opens with these inspiring words:
Know Ye, that reposing special trust and confidence in the patriotism, valor, fidelity and abilities of Elliott Richard Garber, I do appoint him Second Lieutenant in the Veterinary Corps of the United States Army.
I still cringe every time I see the pictures from this event. How in the world could I think it was appropriate to sport my little flavor saver facial hair and keep my hand in my pocket during the ceremony?!
The ceremony went well, however, and my new colleagues were gracious about my complete lack of knowledge about proper military bearing. It was especially fun to have my mom and a few siblings (I’m one of five) there to witness the beginning of this new stage in life.
And that was it! I didn’t have to buy uniforms or do any military training for another three years, but I began getting nice monthly deposits in my bank account and I never saw another tuition bill from Tufts.
I’ll discuss more details about the rest of my time in veterinary school as an HPSP recipient in my next article.
Do you think I made a good decision in accepting the scholarship? Would you be willing to trade a few years of your life for financial freedom and flexibility later on?