New elective grooms military physician leaders
Leigh Rexius enlisted in the U.S. Army infantry after graduating from high school in 1997. He later joined the Army National Guard, working as a mechanic and deploying to Iraq for 15 months in 2005-2006. Now in his 30s, he’s a third-year student in DMU’s osteopathic medical program.
Classmates Joshua Dilday and Justin Chaltry commissioned in the military as undergraduates at Truman State University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, respectively, where they gained military training in the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). Both earned recognition as distinguished military graduates.
Contrast those experiences with that of Ben Gaumer, D.O.’79, who commissioned as a naval ensign while a medical student in order to qualify for the military’s Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP). When he reported to Naval Regional Medical Center (NRMC) at Camp Pendleton, CA, for his medical internship, he says, “I learned how to salute and how to wear my uniform by looking at others.”
Gaumer went on to become a rear admiral, commander of Naval Reserve Fleet hospitals and associate deputy chief of the Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, among many other roles. Now retired from the military and serving as Iowa regional chief medical informatics officer for Catholic Health Initiatives, he still recalls his NRMC debut as not his proudest moment.
“One of the first things they had us do was to get our photo taken,” he says. “I went to the hospital with long hair that covered my ears, wearing a gold chain, the most atrocious appearance possible, because I had gotten no prior military training.”
A new elective in DMU’s College of Osteopathic Medicine seeks to address that gap by preparing current osteopathic students in the military for their future roles as officers. The idea was driven by Dilday, national president of the Student Association of Military Osteopathic Physicians and Surgeons (SAMOPS), and Chaltry, national SAMOPS vice president. As an undergraduate, Chaltry was a double major working a couple of jobs, fulfilling military requirements and working as an emergency medical technician.
“I was a medical officer for a battalion. I wasn’t even an officer yet and had 100-plus men’s health in my hands,” he says. “It was humbling and cool. Josh and I are trying to carry that discipline into medical school and to other military medical students. We both have the confidence that comes from our prior military experiences, and we want fellow students to gain that as well. It’s all about comfort.”
There’s pride involved as well. Many medical students, like Gaumer, commission in the military primarily to receive the HPSP’s benefits of full tuition and a monthly stipend. That comes with an obligation to serve active duty as officers after they graduate. However, because they often get little or no military training until then, they may lack adequate leadership skills and working military knowledge.
“Upon graduation, students who haven’t had previous military experience kind of get thrown into the deep end of the pool,” says Gaumer. “This will give students a leg up and help everybody start at a higher level.”
That will be good for DMU, too, he and the students agree.
“We wanted to create a training environment with the elective where students can become the best military officers they can be,” Dilday says. “We want each student here to know their roles and responsibilities, so DMU is known for its high military officer quality.”
Leadership, discipline, unity
DMU’s military elective will include sessions and speakers on military medicine topics and simulation experiences in battlefield medicine. Additional exercises will be offered with SAMOPS, an optional club for military students, including helicopter medical evacuation training, rifle simulation labs and community outreach.
Dilday and Chaltry brought their idea for more robust military training for students to David Plundo, D.O.’85, M.P.H.’11, FACOFP, while he was serving as acting dean of the College of Osteopathic Medicine (COM). He supported the idea as consistent with DMU’s mission and tradition.
“DMU wants to help students who have joined the military to know what to expect and to make a good impression,” says Plundo, COM associate dean of medical education and external affairs. “DMU also has a tradition of having a number of alumni who have gone on to very distinguished careers in all branches of the military.”
Plundo invited one of those graduates, Gaumer, to serve as the new elective’s adviser, and Timothy Steele, Ph.D., to be its chief coordinator.
“I’m very honored to be part of this and thrilled that our military students could get some extra training,” says Steele, chair of microbiology and immunology and a U.S. Coast Guard veteran. “It will give them some advanced preparation in the concepts, leadership roles and potential experiences they’ll have as military physicians.”
Those advantages for students may generate benefits for DMU. “It may help the University attract more students who are in the military,” Steele notes. “We’re looking for ways we can be distinctive, as so few osteopathic schools have something like this. There may be students who come here because of the elective.”
Like SAMOPS, the elective will be a way for military students to connect. While 70 current students – 67 in osteopathic medicine, two in the College of Podiatric Medicine and Surgery and one in the master of health care administration program – receive the HPSP scholarship, DMU does not track other students who are active duty, in the reserve or are veterans.
“We didn’t have a clear picture of how many military students are here,” Plundo says. “If you didn’t belong to SAMOPS, you might not know who other military students were.”
Dilday, Chaltry and their military classmates hope the elective will change that. “In order to facilitate better officership, we want to create better unity,” Dilday says. In April, he and Chaltry began leading 7 a.m. physical training sessions every Wednesday to promote fitness and help prepare students who planned to participate in basic training over the summer.
“We expected every SAMOPS member to be there,” Dilday says. “If you’re the best surgeon, the best OB/GYN in the military, you’re still judged by how many pushups you can do.”
The military students also worked with the Iowa Air National Guard to organize flights in UH 60 Black Hawk helicopters and with the Iowa Army National Guard to offer simulation range experiences, in which participants learned basic handling of the M4 carbine and M16 service rifles. Such activities will continue as joint offerings of SAMOPS and the military elective.
Those involved in creating the elective would like to see it evolve into a more extensive “track” for military students, including not just those in DMU’s osteopathic medical program. Plundo compares the concept to the University’s Rural Medicine Educational Pathway (RMEP), which provides specialized education and training to prepare clinical students to practice in rural, underserved areas of Iowa.
“I ran the rural medicine track; why not model a military track after that?” he says. “If we identify interest in it like we did for the rural medicine track, we could expand it, ensuring it brings value to the University and to the students.”
Exposure to the military’s structural and operational aspects could help shape the mindset future military physicians will need. “Students think they’re doctors first and military officers second, but really it’s the opposite,” Gaumer says. “People in the military expect you to be an officer first.” ✪
Military alumni, please report for (volunteer) duty
Megan Loftsgaarden’s grandfathers served in the Navy during World War II. A grandmother joined the Army Nurse Corps during the war and was part of an elite group that served in the Pacific. Her brother graduated from the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, in May, and several aunts and uncles joined various military branches. “It’s important for me to honor that service,” she says.
Loftsgaarden is doing that as a third-year osteopathic medical student who commissioned in the Army when she enrolled at DMU. Secretary of the national Student Association of Military Osteopathic Physicians and Surgeons (SAMOPS), she and her fellow military students want mentors – DMU alumni who are past and current military members who can guide them on their military medical journeys.
“We really want to connect with alumni. They’re such a valuable resource for us regarding which rotations are the best and the opportunities military medicine has to offer,” she says. “We would love to have a mentor program with any alumni who could give us their e-mail address, so students interested in their career path could get advice and recommendations.”
Sam Grasso, a second-year osteopathic medical and military student and president of the DMU SAMOPS chapter, echoes that hope. He adds that military alumni could participate as speakers for the University’s new military elective as well as mentors for students. That would greatly benefit students like him who, despite his having officer training at Fort Sam Houston, have little military background.
“A lot of military medical students are in my shoes,” he says. “Having military mentors among DMU alumni would better help us learn about and prepare for military medicine.”
Alumni who are interested in serving as mentors and/or speakers on military topics are encouraged to contact Timothy Steele, Ph.D., chair of microbiology and immunology and chief coordinator of DMU’s military elective, at 515-271-1728 or firstname.lastname@example.org.