This Veteran’s Day, the WSU Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine will salute eight of its first-year medical students – a record 10% of the class – for their service in the military.

The number is double the national average 5% of military veterans in medical schools across the country, and higher than the 6% of military veterans the College of Medicine has annually admitted to its medical degree program the past three years. In total, the college has welcomed 20 students with military backgrounds in its first four classes. They represent all four service branches and bring decades of military experience to the College.

“We are extremely proud to have such a significant number of our students dedicating their lives to the medical profession after giving and sacrificing so much as members of our military,” said Dr. John Tomkowiak, founding dean of the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine. “Our veterans are passionate about their country and their communities, and their commitment to service aligns perfectly with our mission to serve the people of Washington.”

From military to medicine

For second-year student Sarah Lewis, a major in the Marine Corps with 11 years of service, the decision to become a doctor was sparked by her deep sense of mission and desire to serve others.

“I enjoyed what I was doing in the military, but there was a disconnect between the work and what my personal goals were,” said Lewis. “It was important to me to have an alignment of mission, and I really wanted to be involved in the front-line issues within our country.”

Her interest in medicine began while stationed in Okinawa, Japan. As a company commander in charge of 220 sailors and Marines, she worked closely with emergency and primary care doctors and began to notice parallels between their job and hers. Their ability to manage the pressure of caring for people in life threatening circumstances, prioritizing competing tasks, and making decisions with limited information aligned with the skillsets she had developed in the Marine Corps. Her final assignment commanding a logistics detachment that included a shock trauma platoon and forward resuscitative surgical system solidified her desire to pursue medicine.

Closeup of Sarah Lewis
Sarah Lewis

Though the College of Medicine was new and didn’t have the long track record of other medical schools, its unique approach to medical education and its emphasis on mission served as the catalysts for her choosing WSU over other institutions.

“The college is very mission oriented and very clear about what that mission is, which really resonated with me and my military background,” said Lewis.

First-year student Michael Johnston served for eight years on the Navy bomb squad and will recommission upon graduation to complete his residency at a military hospital, but the shift from disposing of bombs to being a physician wasn’t the stretch that most would think.

Closeup of Michael Johnston
Michael Johnston

“Being a bomb disposalman is like being a physician – there’s a problem and you need someone specialized to fix it,” said Johnston.

During his military service he saw physicians acting in high risk situations, which influenced his pursuit of a medical career. An incident during a diving mission in the Pacific Ocean in which a team member lost consciousness at a significant depth fueled his interest.

“The doctor on call helped everyone stay calm and guided us on how to save the life of that individual,” said Johnston. “That experience, along with others, helped me to have trust and confidence in the team of people I’m working with and to develop a calming persona in chaotic situations, which has uniquely prepared me for a career as a physician.”

Closeup of Ashlynn Felker
Ashlynn Felker

For second-year student Ashlynn Felker, a six-year veteran of the Air National Guard currently serving as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Washington Air National Guard, a job change from logistics readiness specialist to medic locked in her decision to pursue a degree as a doctor.

“Coming from a family of veterans was one of my main reasons for joining the military and, after working in supply and logistics, I did some soul searching and started taking anatomy and biology classes in my undergraduate program, and loved those,” said Felker. “Making that career transition in the Air National Guard to a medic was the biggest driving factor for me going into medicine. Furthermore, the additional training and financial assistance that the military offered relieved my financial stress while providing training opportunities many people have never experienced.”

Felker’s medic training led her to serving on the Homeland Response Team at the 141st Medical Group on Fairchild Air Force Base where she gained FEMA and search and rescue training, and deployed to Thailand where she helped train the Royal Thai Army on search and rescue tactics. She went on to gain her nursing license and worked as an urgent care float nurse in the year leading up to medical school. Now, as she prepares to become a doctor, she anticipates her military experience will help her to better serve her fellow service members and veterans.

“In the military, we have a sense of camaraderie and community.,” said Felker. “As a doctor, I’ll be able to have that connection with other veterans and current service members and relate to them from the beginning – it’s a valuable connection few people experience in a lifetime.”

Learn more about the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine.