Bronze Stars, white coat
On the morning their second son Augustus was born in September 2014, Curtis Carr and his wife Suzi had been married three years, but the actual time they had spent together as a family didn’t quite add up to a year.
A Green Beret medic assigned to Fort Bragg, Carr spent most of the time away deployed on combat missions in Afghanistan. He was involved in more than 120 firefights with Taliban forces in the mountain regions near Kabul.
He earned two Bronze Starts for his actions in conflict.
And he also became a father of two boys – a sacred duty that he came to realize meant even more to him than being a soldier.
“Being a father is the most important part of my life,” he said. “My father was there for me and my brother, so I understand how important it is to be around.”
The importance of that role was hammered home in the hours after Augustus was born when he began having trouble breathing and was rushed to the neonatal intensive care unit.
That week, as Augustus clung to life in the NICU, Carr began to think of the years ahead and how he wanted to spend them.
“I’ve performed a lot of difficult trauma care in my life and prepared for a lot of challenging situations,” Carr said. “Nothing prepared me for this. It scared the life out of me. Seeing my son like that was the moment I decided to change my career – I needed to do something that would keep me with my family.”
Becoming an 18-Delta
That new direction would ultimately lead him to Chapel Hill where in January 2016 he enrolled as a student in the 20-member inaugural class of the School of Medicine’s Physician Assistant Program.
But it was not the first time his life had taken an unexpected turn.
After graduating from high school in Colorado, Carr joined the Navy, only to be discharged soon after because of faulty vision in one eye.
Years later, in 2007, he was a college graduate waiting tables in Brooklyn when he got into a conversation with a group of service members who urged him to enlist again – this time in the Army as a combat medic.
Carr was confident he could handle the physical demands of the job.
Carr played basketball at Otero Junior College in Colorado, and later, at Northern State University in South Dakota, under Hall-of-Fame head coach Don Meyer.
The encounter with soldiers at the restaurant also reminded him of the answer he had given Meyer when his coach asked him what he wanted to major in.
He knew, even than, that basketball wasn’t going to be his life, despite that his father had played college ball and his uncle had played seven seasons in the NBA.
“I love basketball, but I didn’t love it enough to make it my life,” Carr said. “So I majored in chemistry, and I knew I wanted to somehow be around medicine.”
That is why, when he enlisted in the Army, he knew becoming a “68 Whiskey,” or combat medic, was the goal he would pursue.
Two weeks into basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, his drill sergeant planted another idea in his head: becoming a Green Beret. “I didn’t know what a Green Beret was, but after learning more about it, I was excited about the possibility of becoming one,” Carr said.
While completing advanced training as a combat medic at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, he was one of two soldiers – out of 480 – who qualified for Airborne training – also known as “jump school” – in Fort Benning, Georgia.
The training got even tougher in September 2008 after he arrived at the Joint Special Operations Training Center at Fort Bragg to find out if he had what it took to become a Green Beret. That process included nine weeks of Small Unit Tactics School followed by several more weeks of survival school.
“Special Forces training was the roughest period of my life,” Carr said. “I lost 25 pounds – not because they didn’t feed us, but because they kept us up 19 to 22 hours a day while also doing strenuous physical work. They want to see how you function when you’re tired, because you don’t always get to decide when you have to work during operations, and you can’t always predict what circumstances you’ll face in the field.”
Afterward, he received additional medical training at VCU Medical Center’s Emergency Department, in Richmond, Virginia, to become an “18-Delta,” a medic on the Green Beret unit.
Here, he quickly gained the attention of medical students who were impressed by his speed and precision inserting chest tubes into trauma patients.
“I was through two chest tubes before one medical student could even make the cut,” Carr said. “All I’d done the previous eight months was this type of medical work. I was aggressive, strong, fast and smart. For me, doing those rotations reinforced that I wanted to be in medicine throughout my life.”
In the field
In Afghanistan, Green Beret units were known as “force multipliers” because of their ability to produce “outsized outcomes” for a fighting unit of only 12 individuals.
During his deployments, his units trained the Afghan National Police in the administration of basic first aid, improved the police’s limited medical capability, and enhanced their police skills so that they could stand up to the Taliban.
After training the Afghans, his unit joined them in the field, where they immediately faced resistant Taliban forces.
“We’d show back up with newly trained police forces, to the roughest part of the country, and our trainees would exert their authority, while the Taliban would say, ‘We’re in charge,’” he said. “The conflict was constant.”
They endured road bombs, gunfights, and grenades hurled at them. Some fights lasted for several days. Six members of his unit died during his first deployment in 2012.
“It was difficult for everyone,” he said. “Those are your guys. One minute they’re standing right next to you and the next minute they’re being rushed by helicopter to wherever they could get the next level of care. As a medic, you’ve done everything you can do to stabilize them and get them medically evacuated, and you pray that they live. But unfortunately, too often you later find out they didn’t.”
A voracious learner
Soon after Augustus came home from his stay in the NICU, Suzi told Carr about the new physician assistance program being launched in Chapel Hill by the School of Medicine’s Department of Allied Health Sciences.
The more he learned about the program’s mission to train veterans with medical experience, particularly 18-Deltas – the more he wanted to apply.
To qualify, he completed prerequisite courses in biochemistry, microbiology and other subjects by taking night classes at Campbell University’s Fort Bragg campus – all the while juggling his other duties as a soldier and father.
Finally, in January 2016, he joined 20 other students as part of the PA program’s inaugural class.
And the hard work got even harder.
“They tell you that the first year of PA school is like cramming four years of medical school into a year, and I can say that felt true to me,” said Carr, who along with his classmates, is now doing clinical rotations during his second and final year of PA school.
He has brought the same intense approach to his studies as he did to Special Forces. That was no surprise to Paul Chelminski, the professor of medicine and primary care phsycian at UNC who directs the PA program.
“Throughout the program, Curtis has been extremely assertive and voracious in his appetite for learning,” Chelminski said. “Green Berets are selected for qualities of independence, rapid problem solving, initiative and an ability to execute practical tasks, and Curtis has demonstrated these skills at UNC.”
Carr said he understands that medicine is more than the trauma patient he became so expert at caring for in the field. Relating to the patient – and understanding his or her complex needs – is his next challenge as a provider. He expects ongoing clinical rotations at UNC Hospitals, Hillsborough Hospital, and other locations to help him become a more well-rounded caregiver.
“I really enjoy seeing the patient – interacting with the person,” Carr said. “They are often at a low point when they come to see you. Something is wrong and they hope you can help them. For me, it’s both inspiring and rewarding hearing from them about their medical issues and being relied on to provide them the service they expect.”