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From army medic to doctor of public health

Published on June 5, 2020

COLUMBIA, Mo. (June 5, 2020) - The transition from a war zone to the classroom had its challenges since he didn’t know how to be a student. Jake Schultz was a medic in the Indiana National Guard for eight years: six years active duty and two years non-active duty. 

Schultz (right) while on active duty for the Indiana National Guard.

As a guardsman, he attended college during the day and worked in an emergency room all night. He eventually earned a Bachelor’s of organizational leadership, graduating with a low grade point average. Schultz said he didn’t realize the traumatic brain injury (TBI) he received during a deployment overseas contributed to his learning issues. 

“I would have to look at my science book five or six times before I could remember it, because I couldn't remember anything,” he said. He had to teach himself to adapt. It wasn’t until he met a TBI specialist at the James H. Quillen VA Healthcare System in Mountain Home (Johnson City), Tennessee that he was taught how to be a student. “They have one of of the best VA’s in the country,” Schultz said.

Through the testing he found out that veterans have unique learning styles and he had to figure out what worked best for him. When it came to learning, he was three times below the national average for verbal retention in the classroom by lecture but three times above the national average for reading retention. As an undergraduate student he had been trying to learn the wrong way. Sitting in a classroom and listening to a professor lecture was not the best learning process for him, he said. “Lecture does nothing for me because of my brain injury.”

At the VA he learned how to be a student by learning to maximize the information he was reading and being taught. “Veterans need to know coming into college that they need to learn the best learning style for them. If a vet does have a TBI or PTSD [Post-traumatic stress disorder] they need to be tested before they start classes, otherwise student veterans are being set up for failure if they don’t do it right,” he said. Learning sciences was difficult for him but working with the TBI specialist and figuring out how he learned best helped improve his GPA from 2.99 to 3.74. 

Attending college with traditional-aged students wasn’t a problem for him. “I lost my childhood and never got to cut loose,” he said. As a veteran he’s fought for students to have the option to go to school. “I don’t know why other veterans get annoyed; I have seen Afghani children denied access to education. It’s ok if the college students don’t have my experience.”

According to Schultz, a lot of veterans don’t understand they can learn from their 20-year-old classmates. The younger students have grown up with technology so they can teach the veteran how to use it to make them a better student. He suggests student veterans talk to the traditional students about being a student. Veterans bring a different perspective to their  classes. As a master’s degree student at University of Notre Dame they wanted his perspective, that is why they accepted him, he said. 

It was “wild” for him to be accepted into Notre Dame. Growing up 40 miles from the university he said ‘it was crazy” to go there. 

Currently, he is a Dr.PH. candidate at Eastern Tennessee State University in public health with an epidemiology concentration studying diseases. “It’s been a long winding road from where I started,” Schultz said.

Fourteen years ago, after a conversation with his dad, he knew his parents didn’t have the means to help him to attend college. His dad worked in a factory and Schultz never knew anyone who had gone to college. In 2006, he joined the National Guard and was deployed to Afghanistan as a medic. It was a big decision for him to join the military, but he wanted to try something different, he said. He wanted to get out of the generational poverty cycle he was born into. 

He was watching the Band of Brothers show and the “Bastogne” episode about a real-life Army medic Eugene Roe during the Battle of the Bulge. Schultz said he was impressed with the responsibilities and the duties of the medic’s story and wanted to fight and be on the front line. 

During his deployment with the 1613th Engineer Support Company he was a one-man clinic. At 20 years old, the independent duty medic was alone, ordering his own supplies, and standing up his own clinics in the middle of nowhere. The closest connection he had to his unit and battalion surgeon was a satellite phone. He eventually ran four clinics in four different places in Afghanistan. 

“I learned how to play doctor on the fly,” Schultz said. He read a medical book seven inches thick. “I was so worried that I was going to make a mistake.” While he was deployed, he constantly asked questions, speaking one-on-one with physicians, nurses, pharmacists, physical therapists, and surgeons, to make sure he gave his patients the best care he could since they knew he was going to be out there alone.

The aid station sat 15 minutes from the Pakistan/Afghanistan border attached to an infantry platoon with a cavalry squadron from the 4th Infantry Division that monitored enemy movement and gathered intelligence for commanders. It served as a medical center for both Afghanistan locals and American or Afghani soldiers who were wounded in battle. At any given time, he could have responsibility for up to two or three dozen Afghan locals and eight to 200 soldiers. Working with the pediatric patients was the most difficult, Schultz said.   

He remembered his time deployed by saying, “I got shot at just about every other day at least once a day while I was in Kunar province [in the northeast of Afghanistan]. At that time over half of all the munitions used in the country were used in that one province that year. We were so used to it we started to joke about it if they didn’t fire on us that day.”

“When I came home from my deployment, I was 21 with half my head grey,” he said. “The stress turned my hair grey.”

For saving lives under fire, Schultz was awarded the Combat Medical Badge, it’s to recognize the importance of medical personnel assigned to Army units. “It’s an honor to get it,” he said, “It means you saved lives under fire.”

After an honorable discharge from the National Guard, he continued serving by traveling to Haiti with Mission Lazarus and other nonprofits as a volunteer. He was part of a team that built a home for a widow whose husband had died and got invited to work at a remote free clinic. During this trip, he realized he doesn’t want to work in a hospital all his life but instead pursue a global health career. Which has led him where he is now, asking how do we address the needs of the poor? 

After studying in Palestine and Jordan conducting field research toward vaccine and vector control research for cutaneous leishmaniasis (a skin infection caused by a single-celled parasite that is transmitted by the bite of a phlebotomine sandfly), seeing the poverty in Afghanistan first hand and his first polio case in an Afghan child, building homes and helping with clinics  in the developing world and growing up in a family that “didn’t have a lot,” he turned his interests into a doctoral degree in public health epidemiology. 

“It's a way of addressing the health needs at the population level,” Schultz said. “A doctor sees one patient at a time. I will be able to address how diseases spread and affect thousands or millions of people, not just one at a time.” He will also learn how viruses and diseases emerge, spread, and trend in populations.

Throughout his education he has worked and learned in developing nations to “come home to America to protect us and try to help those in the host nation I work with,” he said. “We’re all connected. Diseases are one plane ride away. I want to try to make the world a little better than when I came in it.”

After he earns his Dr.PH., his career goal is to work with the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services. He would be a part of the Center for Disease Control’s Epidemic Intelligence Service fellowship program where he can continue to serve and help people in the developing world while simultaneously helping people in the United States. 

Schultz doing dissections under microscopy in the field of wild sand flies caught while doing research in Palestine for his second masters degree.

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