If you've ever wondered what it's like to be a veterinarian or a military professional, you'll be intrigued to know what life is like as both. Elliott Garber, DVM, MPH details what his life is like as a veterinarian and active duty officer in the United States Army.
Army Veterinarian: Do You Have What it Takes?
"A veterinarian in the Army? Why in the world do we need them?" This is the classic response I get whenever I meet someone new and answer their question about what kind of work I do. Even though I have now heard it hundreds of times, I never get tired of answering because I shared the same surprise and curiosity when I first learned about this unique career possibility within the veterinary field.
So yes, I am a veterinarian in the Army. In the same way that the military needs doctors, nurses, and lawyers (remember the old TV shows M*A*S*H and JAG?), it also needs veterinarians.
After my new friends think about it for a minute, they usually realize that the idea is not so surprising after all. They picture the brave horses used in the cavalry through the ages, and the courageous explosive detection dogs saving lives in Afghanistan today. This is an important part of our job, providing top-of-the-line medical and surgical care to military working animals of a variety species.
A Worldly Profession
For a more personal window into my work with military working dogs (MWDs), read this essay I published in The New York Times about one of my dogs that died in combat last year. You can also check out my short story, No Dog Left Behind, which features a Special Forces veterinarian who faces a unique situation when one of the dogs in his care goes missing during a night raid in Afghanistan.
In order to maintain our proficiency for these military animals, we also provide veterinary services to military family pets at bases all over the world. The surgeries I perform and illnesses I evaluate in a soldier’s pet at my home clinic will make me more prepared to deal with a sick or injured working dog in a combat environment.
Along with the military animals and family pets, Army veterinarians also play a big role in supporting the public health mission for the community. We work with physicians and preventive medicine experts to develop zoonotic disease prevention strategies, especially focusing on rabies in areas of the world where that is still a serious concern. We also supervise teams of food inspection soldiers who ensure that all the food sold to military service members and their families come from safe sources and is stored and prepared appropriately.
As a veterinarian, I get to travel around the world performing audits on food and beverage manufacturing facilities to make sure that they are following the proper food safety standards. This part of the job has taken me to Ghana for a Coca-Cola bottling plant, to Greece for a pork product plant, and to Israel for a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream plant, among many others.
Most new graduate veterinarians spend their first five or six years in the Army performing a combination of the above tasks. Because we are the only clinical veterinarians in the military, we can be assigned to any type of U.S. mission around the world. I started out at a big Army base, then went overseas to Egypt to support a multinational peacekeeping force for a year, and finally moved to Sicily where I now work on a small Navy base.
Career Opportunities Beyond Veterinary Work
Many Army veterinarians are content to do one or two assignments like this before transitioning back into the civilian world to pursue their own career goals. Most of us originally come in through the Health Professions Scholarship Program, which pays tuition and living expenses for one to four years of veterinary school. This program has a three-year active duty service obligation. Other veterinarians come into the Army on their own after graduating from school, often getting a nice loan repayment bonus in exchange for a minimum commitment of three years of service.
Although most of us end up doing the more routine work I’ve described above, there are plenty of unique opportunities that early career Army veterinarians can volunteer for. Special Forces vets must be airborne qualified and often go behind enemy lines to work with local populations on animal health projects that help create goodwill and stabilize dangerous situations. The Navy’s marine mammal program always has several Army veterinarians working alongside their civilian specialist counterparts to provide care for the program’s dolphins and sea lions. Humanitarian missions utilize Army vets in providing veterinary aid to impoverished nations around the world.
The Army also presents some very appealing options for veterinarians who are considering serving a full 20-year career. Through the Long-Term Health Education & Training program, the Army will pay for veterinarians to go back to school for an MPH, Ph.D., or any number of clinical and research-oriented residency programs. I recently passed my board exams to become certified as a Diplomate in the American College of Veterinary Preventive Medicine. We also have board-certified surgeons, radiologists, emergency/critical care specialists, laboratory animal veterinarians, and pathologists in the Veterinary Corps. These specialists perform a wide variety of jobs in both clinical medicine and in research and development. Many of them transition into academia, industry, or private practice after retiring from the military with a full pension and generous benefits package.
Requirements to Be a Military Vet
People often ask me about the physical fitness requirements for Army veterinarians. We have to meet the same standards as all other soldiers. That means that you will be subjected to an evaluation of your medical history and intense medical exam before even being accepted into the Army. We also have to take a physical fitness test four times per year that measures our ability to meet certain minimum requirements for push-ups, sit-ups, and a two-mile run.
Finally, our height and weight are measured at each of these tests to ensure that we meet the standard. The requirements are different for men and women, and they also change based on your age.
One of the most important things that Army veterinarians must accept is that we are not ultimately in control of our lives and careers during our time in service. Although we can express our preferences about what assignments we would like and whether or not we want to be deployed to a combat zone, at the end of the day it is always Uncle Sam’s decision to use us how he best sees fit. I’m not sure yet if I will make a career in the Army Veterinary Corps, but I have genuinely enjoyed my experience so far. I was spared the hundreds of thousands of dollars of student loan debt that I would have incurred without the scholarship program, and I have gotten to travel around the world putting my veterinary skills to good use. If you are interested in learning more about my experiences in the Army, I’ve written a whole series for you at my blog, The Uncommon Veterinarian.
So next time someone asks you why we have veterinarians in the Army, I hope you’ll be as prepared as I am to tell them about the important roles we play in the service of our country.