For the Army’s newest medical officers, coronavirus reaffirms desire to serve

By ELIZABETH MCLAUGHLIN, ABC News

(NEW YORK) — More than 125 people are set to become the U.S. Army’s newest medical professionals during the service’s first virtual nationwide commissioning ceremony for future health care officers on Wednesday.

There are 127 current and future Army officers expected to participate in the online ceremony, according to the Army.

While some are just now beginning an academic program, others are current students, recent graduates or already practicing medical professionals. The group includes doctors, dentists, veterinarians, psychiatrists, nurses, physical therapists and pharmacists.

The diversity of their backgrounds and experiences was evident in recent phone interviews ABC News conducted with three of these future officers. For all of them, a desire to help others seems to have long-driven their decision to work in medicine and now join the Army. But the ongoing coronavirus pandemic — and the Army’s deployment in response to it — has given new meaning to an already significant commissioning ceremony.

Dr. Rebecca VanHorn has worked extensively with service members and veterans during her career as a psychiatrist.

During her residency, she spent time at the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs Medical Center where she learned best practices in providing care for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, she said. Now in Chicago, VanHorn is the medical director for Rush University Medical Center’s Road Home Program, a grant-funded program that provides mental health care for veterans and their family members.

“I continue to be drawn to providing care for soldiers and their families, and I think it’s an opportunity to fulfill my own desire to give back,” she said of the upcoming ceremony where she will be commissioned as a major in the Army Reserves.

Though VanHorn said she has long-considered joining the military, now feels like the right time with her 17-year-old son set to finish high school soon.

The timing also coincides with a large deployment of Army medical teams to cities across the country, staffing temporary medical facilities, augmenting local hospitals and assisting nursing homes in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Asked how the public health crisis has affected her view of Wednesday’s commissioning, VanHorn said, “It actually reiterates, sort of, the importance of the commitment that I’m excited to make and at a time when I think our country needs as much as people are able to give to help everyone.”

For Kyle Wilson, Wednesday’s commissioning as a second lieutenant is a return to the Army after already serving as a combat medic for 10 years — including deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

He left the Army to fulfill his dream of becoming an intensive care unit (ICU) nurse. After graduating from the University of Texas at El Paso, he is now treating COVID-19 patients in the ICU of the university’s medical center.

Wilson said that seeing the Army’s response to the pandemic has similarly reaffirmed his choice to be commissioned during “a very difficult time for the country.”

“I think it really has solidified my decision to return: seeing the Army come together, setting up the mobile field hospitals (and) providing care for the communities,” he said.

As the daughter of an Army major, Aliyah Howell said the idea of helping soldiers and veterans has long appealed to her.

“I can honestly thank the Army for my way of life and how I grew up,” she told ABC News.

To prepare for her career in dentistry, Howell volunteered at the Army’s Fort Belvoir Dental Clinic in Virginia before attending the Marquette University School of Dentistry in Wisconsin. She will receive the rank of captain after her expected graduation in 2023.

“I’m really looking forward to being able to be dispatched to different locations to bring my skills into environments, whether that be overseas or to different states, different communities as needed,” she said.

Howell said the Army’s ability to quickly deploy in response to the coronavirus appealed to what she wants out of her own career.

“The whole goal is to take care of our country and those who take care of us,” she said.

Wednesday’s commissioning, hosted by Army Surgeon Lt. Gen. Scott Dingle, will be livestreamed on the U.S. Army Recruiting Command’s Facebook page at 1 p.m. EDT.

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