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Face of Defense: Physician Assistant Cares for Troops, Local Iraqis

By Army Sgt. Michael MacLeod
1st Brigade, 82d Airborne Division Public Affairs Office

AL ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq, July 15, 2010 – During a clinical rotation at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, physician assistant student Jessica Larson made up her mind to join the Army.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Army 1st Lt. Jessica Larson, a physician assistant with 307th Brigade Support Battalion, 1st Advise and Assist Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division, treats an Iraqi child during a one-day, combined U.S.–Iraqi medical clinic in Kubaysah, Iraq, June 6, 2010. U.S. Army photo by Spc. Katie Summerhill
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

At the Center for the Intrepid, Larson worked with severely wounded warriors, and from them she drew a singular inspiration.

“They were still proud to be in the Army, and they were working really hard to rehabilitate themselves and to do the best they had with what they had,” said Larson, now a physician assistant and a first lieutenant with the 82nd Airborne Division’s 1st Advise and Assist Brigade, deployed in Iraq since August 2009.

“‘This is what life dealt me; this is what I am working with, and now it’s time for me to move on. There is no feeling sorry for yourself here.’ That was the attitude that all the soldiers had,” Larson said. “It was really inspiring.”

At age 28, with years invested in a career designing airports for domestic and international markets, Larson, a Chicago native, decided she wanted more than a big paycheck and a corner office.

“I asked myself, if I could start over and do anything at all, what would I do? And I realized that I’ve always wanted to be in medicine and never had the guts to try it,” she said.

Of all the career options, medicine was the one thing that resonated and stuck, Larson said. However, the Army was never part of the plan until she “met someone who knew someone” during PA school clinical rotations.

The Army intrigued her, but Larson wanted to be sure she could handle being around the worst of combat injuries before committing. She recalled being deeply impressed by the bravery and stoicism of the severely wounded soldiers, including amputees, she’d met.

“That is when I made my decision to join the Army,” Larson said. “If these guys could give up multiple limbs for their country, the least I could do was to give three years of my life.”

Not too long after that, the newly-minted PA found herself caring for the soldiers of an airborne logistics unit, the 307th Brigade Support Battalion, deployed in Iraq’s largest and historically most volatile province, al Anbar.

“I found that in the military, I was catering to a completely different population than I thought I would be,” said Larson, who initially wanted to practice international medicine in areas with little access to medical care, such as Africa’s Swaziland.

“My guys – the guys I treat – are convoy security, and that’s not a very ‘sexy’ job and not often glorified. I really enjoy taking care of them,” she said. “Even though it’s not humanitarian aid in Africa, I feel like it’s an incredibly worthy cause. I am very satisfied with it.”

As it turns out, through the advise-and-assist mission of professionalizing Iraqi security forces in Anbar, Larson also gets to care for people who might otherwise never receive medical attention. The U.S. paratroopers, she said, have sponsored temporary medical clinics for the poorer, more rural towns and villages up and down the western Euphrates River Valley in partnership with the Iraqi army, police and local doctors. Often, hundreds of ailing Iraqis, she noted, receive medical treatment at the clinics each day.

Larson said some of her soldier-comrades are puzzled as to why she left her corner office and high-paying job for the Army.

“I don’t miss my former lifestyle at all,” she emphasized. “I was miserable, and I’m not miserable now.”

She tells her younger medics that knowing what you don’t want to do is just as important as knowing what you want to do. Don’t do things just for the money and don’t choose things because they are easy, she counsels them.

When Larson joined the Army, she recalled, her mother was shocked, and cried.

“My mom was like, ‘What are you doing? You are going to deploy. You could get hurt,’” Larson said. “But now my mother is the most ridiculously proud woman on the planet.”

The daily challenge of medicine, Larson said, is what keeps her enthused in her job. And, she added, unlike some other occupations, there always is more to learn in medicine.

“It’s worth it to me,” Larson said. “It’s an honor serving these guys who are fighting for us and out there doing the grunge work.”

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