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UNC Medical Center’s annual Veterans Day event honored veterans and celebrated the new UNC Physician Assistant (PA) Program. Nine of 20 incoming PA program students are veterans, and four of those students — veterans with more than five decades of combined experience serving their country — were in attendance.

The UNC medical community gathered for its annual Veterans Day event in the lobby of N.C. Memorial Hospital. The focus of this year’s event was the UNC School of Medicine Physician Assistant Program. The program, which launches in January, is designed to provide educational and career-development opportunities for nontraditional students, including veterans with medical experience, and reduce North Carolina’s healthcare workforce shortage in underserved areas.

Dr. Paul Chelminski, PA program director, professor of medicine, and primary care physician at UNC, spoke at the event.

“The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is the great servant institution to the people of this state,” Chelminski explained to attendees including physicians, hospital leaders and staff, local veterans, four incoming PA program students who served in the military, and others. “The new PA program is an example of our university reinvesting in exceptional individuals, in the ultimate servants — veterans — to accomplish its great servant mission.”

Chelminski noted that prospective students’ enthusiasm for the program was evident throughout the application process, as nearly 900 people completed a program application. The 20 students accepted into the program will begin coursework in January.

The program separates itself from other PA programs by seeking out experienced individuals whose paths to the profession may have been nontraditional. Nine of the 20 members of the program’s first class — 45 percent — are veterans. This compares to six percent for veterans in PA programs nationally. Two of the nine veterans who will be part of the inaugural UNC class are women.

One marker of this nontraditional path is the number of clinical hours applicants have had at the time of application to PA school. The national average for accepted PA students is between 3,000 and 4,000 hours. The UNC PA Program average is 13,000 hours. Another marker is age. The national average for matriculating PA students is 26; the UNC PA Program average is 33.

“Over the course of the last decade, our country has invested billions of dollars in the professional development of thousands of military medics and corpsmen,” said Chelminski. “These people served ably, honorably, often heroically — many in Iraq and Afghanistan. And, yet, when these talented people reverted to civilian life, their impressive military medical training and experience would not translate into civilian credentials that permitted a scope of practice that was anywhere equivalent to the life and death responsibilities they had in the field and on base.”

Several years ago, research done by Dr. Bruce Cairns, director of the N.C. Jaycee Burn Center, and second-year medical student Eric Strand, a former 18-Delta, revealed that most Special Forces medics aspired to continue their medical careers as civilians — 92 percent in fact — and that over half of them would choose the PA profession to do this.

“It was against this background that the University of North Carolina, the School of Medicine, and the military and private partners like Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina dedicated themselves to an endeavor that would honor the potential of talented veterans by giving them the education they needed to improve themselves and to continue to serve their country as civilians,” said Chelminski. “Special Operations soldiers are considered ‘force multipliers’ in the field of combat. Our mission is to make them ‘force multipliers’ in the civilian sphere.”

Chelminski closed his remarks by reading aloud a letter he received from future PA program student and veteran Angel Legare, a United States Air Force medic and nontraditional college student who shared the connection she felt to the program after her interview with program faculty.

“‘I wanted you to know how much I appreciate how the program genuinely values the experience of veterans and sees each of us as a whole person rather than just an application,” read Chelminski. “‘I know this program is going to go far, and it was thrilling to see what UNC has to offer.'”

Emceed by UNC Hospitals Police Officer and veteran Terry Mardis, the event began with the showing of United States colors by the newly formed UNC Hospitals Police Honor Guard, under the command of Officer Sherlita Bradford. Members of the local American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars were also in attendance.

Todd Williams, a 28-year veteran of the U.S. Army and former Green Beret medic who received the Bronze Star three times and the Defense Meritorious Service Medal twice, serves as assistant professor and Clinical Coordinator in the the UNC PA Program. Williams delivered the highlight of the event when he introduced four incoming PA students who were in attendance — veterans who combine more than five decades of military service.

The program is made possible because of the unprecedented public-private partnerships that have been formed and the generous donations from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (BCBSNC), the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust, and the Eddie and Jo Allison Smith Family Foundation, and the leadership and support of Dr. Mary Susan Fulghum and her late husband Dr. James Fulghum. These gifts provide all military students scholarship support of either $7,500 or $10,000.