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Retired Green Beret medic Todd Williams earned three Bronze Stars and two Defense Meritorious Service Medals, among other service recognitions, during his distinguished 28-year military career. Today, he helps lead nontraditional students, including military veterans with medical experience, on a path toward becoming physician assistants through the UNC School of Medicine’s recently launched Physician Assistant Program.

By Zach Read –

Todd Williams’s 28-year military career took him to countries and combat zones around the world: Korea, Haiti, sub-Saharan Africa, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Although the retired Green Beret medic, also known as an 18-Delta, doesn’t share many details about his experiences overseas, he does open up about an invaluable gift given to him by his sister-in-law before deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq in the years after September 11, 2001: a globe.

More than a decade ago, Williams and his wife, Michelle, placed the globe in the study of their home in Cameron, North Carolina, a thirty-minute drive from Fort Bragg, where he was stationed. Today, it sits in the family’s study at their home in Holly Springs, outside Raleigh.

“It was a huge help when talking to my daughters about my deployments,” recalled Williams, the clinical coordinator for the recently launched UNC Physician Assistant (PA) Program, which is operated through the Department of Allied Health Sciences at the UNC School of Medicine. “When I was preparing to go to Afghanistan or Iraq, I would bring them into the study and point to where on the map I was going, tell them how long I’d be gone, and explain that I’d be working as a medic, trying to help people. It was a way for us to feel closer during those times.”

An Ideal Fit

In the fall of 2015, after nearly three decades of military service, Williams officially retired from the Army and began his new position with the PA Program. The decision to seek a second career – after the Army had been his professional home for so long – was carefully considered.

“To be in Special Forces, your team has to be able to rely on each other,” Williams explained. “On your bad days, you need to know that you’ll be picked up by your teammates. On their bad days, you need to be there to pick them up. For me, after 16 years in Special Forces, I’d reached a point where I no longer felt I could be as effective a teammate as I needed to be. My daughters were 12 and eight years old, and it was increasingly difficult to be away from them.”

For the PA Program, the timing of Williams’s retirement couldn’t have been better. Upon learning about his military and professional experiences and interviewing him for the position, UNC professor of medicine and PA Program director Paul Chelminski, MD, and his colleagues on the program hiring committee knew they had found the ideal fit to be clinical coordinator.

“We weren’t specifically looking for a candidate with military experience for this position,” said Chelminski. “But as soon as we saw Todd’s credentials, we understood what he could contribute to this program and our students. Todd is an 18-Delta and a physician assistant with a wealth of medical experience, and he has taken the type of nontraditional educational path that so many of our students follow.”

The result of a public-private partnership that includes support from Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina, the Kenan Trust, and several charitable foundations, the PA Program provides educational and career-development opportunities to nontraditional students, including military veterans with medical experience, who are committed to the program’s mission to reduce health-care shortages in underserved communities in North Carolina. As Williams learned more about the program and its special emphasis on nontraditional students, he became very enthusiastic, and he has not been disappointed by the program since arriving on campus. The enthusiasm of the program’s inaugural 20 students, who began their PA education in Chapel Hill in January, has exceeded his expectations, as has the School of Medicine’s commitment to them.

“Everyone who is part of the program – all 20 students, veterans and nonveterans, and all faculty and staff – are here for the same reason: to serve,” said Williams. “I love this program because we don’t just look solely at GPAs to find qualified applicants – we look at the whole person and evaluate whether they have a sincere desire to contribute to our mission of serving the underserved.”

For Williams, the mission is an extension of his previous career in service, both in the military and as a physician assistant at Womack Army Medical Center, where he educated PAs during clinical rotations and gave back to the military community by providing health care for the children and spouses of soldiers deployed overseas – situations that often place a heavy burden on both active duty soldiers and their families.

“I know what it’s like to be overseas and to worry about the health of your family,” Williams said. “At different times, caregivers took care of my wife and children while I was deployed, and having that reliable support means so much to families. As a PA at Womack, I had the ability to say to families and soldiers in their time of need, ‘We got you.’ In my second career, I feel an incredible connection to the mission of educating future PAs who may go on to provide that same kind of service to military families and to others in need of well-trained health-care professionals throughout North Carolina.”

Force Multiplier

As clinical coordinator, Williams facilitates students’ hands-on learning experiences – their clinical rotations – throughout UNC Hospitals and clinics around North Carolina, including at Chatham HospitalSoutheastern Medical Clinic Red Springs near Fayetteville, Womack Army Medical Center, and in other settings. Todd’s background is perfectly suited for this role. Since the start of the program, he has demonstrated the skill to create teams of educators across specialties, whether for our students’ future rotations in surgery or the emergency department or pediatrics. –Paul Chelminski, MD, PA Program director

Chelminski said Williams’s background as a Special Forces officer makes him particularly well prepared for the job.

“Todd’s background is perfectly suited for this role,” noted Chelminski. “At a moment’s notice, Special Forces officers must be prepared to go into an environment that’s different from the one they’re used to, and the deployment they’ve just completed may not resemble the next one five months later. This calls on their unique abilities to be fast learners and to create a team environment no matter the situation they’re going into. Since the start of the program, Todd has demonstrated the skill to create teams of educators across specialties, whether for our students’ future rotations in surgery or the emergency department or pediatrics. His skillset allows him to cycle through vastly different environments to prepare these students for education.”

Since joining the PA Program faculty, Williams has also become an assistant professor of orthopaedics. With experience as an orthopaedics trauma PA at Womack, he has been able to seamlessly step in to the Department of Orthopaedics at UNC and see patients. In January 2017, he will educate many of the inaugural class of PAs during their clinical rotations in orthopaedics.

“Special Forces officers are referred to as ‘force multipliers’ in the field,” said Chelminski. “You may have one person, but things are occurring as if you have several people. That’s a testament to their skill to keep people in the environment on task and focused on an objective. In Todd’s case, he’s working toward creating a curriculum of excellence in clinical medicine for our PA students while also providing patient care.”

A Role Model

Long before retirement from the military, Williams had completed his Master’s degree in physician assistant studies at Methodist University, in Fayetteville, and spent nine years, when not deployed, as a physician assistant in Emergency Medicine and Orthopaedics. In 2003, prior to becoming a physician assistant, he received his Bachelor’s in Health Sciences from Campbell University’s Fort Bragg campus, doing coursework offered to Special Forces medics interested in becoming physician assistants.

Earning both degrees required him to take night classes and complete school work late into the evenings and on weekends while raising his daughters and working as a medic instructor at the Joint Special Operations Medic Training Center (JSOMTC) at Fort Bragg.

Williams insists that he shouldn’t be applauded for those accomplishments.

“People do it all the time,” he said. “They deal with difficult situations and make the best of them, and if they have a goal, they figure out a plan, initiate that plan, and accomplish the goal.”

In many ways, Williams’s educational and career paths mirror those of the nontraditional students the UNC PA Program seeks. His interest in the military began at a young age, after moving from Raleigh, where he’s originally from, to Lakeland, Florida, where his mother’s grandparents lived. His grandfather, an infantry officer in the Army, and his grandmother, an Army nurse, met at Fort Hamilton, in Brooklyn, New York, during World War II. In Florida, he lived close enough to his grandparents that his grandfather walked him and his sister to school; their grandparents’ house became the afterschool care program while their mother was at work.

“My grandfather was the consummate quiet professional,” Williams said. “He was serious, hardworking, loved to be outdoors fishing and hunting, and participated in the community. He had a huge influence on my decision to pursue a career in the military.”

For Williams, during junior high and high school, the idea of taking a traditional route to college and a civilian career didn’t interest him, to the chagrin of his mother, who hoped he would pursue higher education. Instead, he joined ROTC and set his sights on the Army. Although academics weren’t his top priority, ROTC helped him focus on doing well in high school – and on graduating – before beginning his military career.

“Joining ROTC was probably the best thing I could have done at that time,” he explained.  “When it came to academics, I’d had some transitional difficulties in my teens, and ROTC forced me to keep my grades up and introduced me to people who would be my mentors not only during my youth, but also during my military career.”

In 1987, upon graduating from high school, Williams was sent to Fort Benning, Georgia, followed by Fort Lewis, Washington, before landing at Fort Bragg and eventually being deployed around the world. Army Ranger-Qualified and an 18-Delta, by the time of his retirement in 2015, he had achieved the rank of Major, and his numerous awards and citations included but were not limited to the Bronze Star for meritorious service three times and the Defense Meritorious Service Medal twice.

Chelminski sees Williams’s path from high school to the military to physician assistant to UNC as an example for current and future UNC PA Program students.

“Todd had a career of elite distinctions even before arriving at UNC,” said Chelminski. “Because of his experiences, we’ve designated him as the adviser to our veteran students. He’s an incredible life role model for the veterans or any nontraditional student. He was Ranger-Qualified and an 18-Delta, and he received countless military service awards and recognitions. He got his undergraduate degree and completed his Master’s in PA studies while raising a family, working full-time, and being deployed in war. That has to be tremendously inspiring for our students to know that these things are possible. He’s the living example of Shakespeare’s Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt, who states, ‘All things are ready if our minds be so,’ meaning anything is possible if our minds believe them to be. Todd is a great testament to this battlefield declaration.”

The Definition of Success

When Chelminski met Williams, he asked him about the motto of the Special Forces.

“He told me that Special Forces soldiers are quiet professionals,” said Chelminski. “And I’ve found that to be true with Todd. He has experienced things that are beyond our imagination, but he doesn’t try to glorify anything he has done. That philosophy carries over to his work with us. He is committed to the PA Program’s mission in an unflashy way, and since he has been here, he has demonstrated a leadership style that feels almost inoculated against demoralization. He’s unflappable.”

For Williams, serving the program is not about his own accomplishments, but about the future accomplishments of his students. He has already laid out his vision for success:

“If I am able to watch them walk across that stage, go out into communities and work, and enjoy their profession as much as I have, then I’ve accomplished my goal,” he said. “Taking care of patients is rewarding. At times it is exciting and at times it is devastating. I want them to appreciate that you have to stay engaged and stay on top of the education, and if they do that, then the interaction with their patients and helping them through their times of difficulty will pay them back.”