– Army Lieutenant Emily Shin, Columbia College 04, currently attending Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons
I spent the summer of 2003 at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, at Army Basic Combat Training because I am a flutist in the NY National Guard Band. I expected it to be a survival exercise, but it turned out to be an opportunity to learn how to work with, get along with, love, and lead many different kinds of people. Yes, there were drill sergeants yelling and screaming and demanding our obeisance, just like in the movies, and we were subject to many physically demanding activities. I realized that it didn’t matter that I was applying to medical school and had an Ivy League education and played the flute all over New York City and overseas. I had to obey and respect the drill sergeants, who for the most part had never gone to college. I had to ask for permission to speak, to accept verbal abuse, and to do pushups on command. I was just a private, subject to “corrective punishment,” required to train like everybody else, to be broken and reformed into the correct soldier shape. I had moments of panic and moments where I wondered why I had gotten myself into such a predicament, but as the nine weeks progressed, I realized that the lessons in respect, conformity, and humility were actually lessons about perseverance, teamwork, gratitude, and service.
To survive basic training is an exercise in perseverance. The drill sergeants are so demanding and encouraging because they want to motivate the soldiers to push themselves to their limits in the areas of physical fitness, mental training, and overall discipline. This strange motivation helped me push myself further than I had deemed possible: I ran two miles in 12:30, finished a 23 km road march with over half of my weight on my back, withstood riot gas attacks, and developed a very loud yell. The experience showed me that I could get through the intensity of medical training and the demands of the practice; if I could survive a whole day of road marching and crawling in the sand with bullets whizzing over my head on three hours of sleep, I could not only survive being on call, worrying about my patients, and working long hours, but also enjoy myself at the same time.
Most important, basic training was a lesson about service. “The greatest thing about this institution is that it is established to serve,” said our battalion commander. Yes, we were there to learn to be soldiers with the ultimate goal of defending the U.S. Constitution and protecting our freedoms. But on a more human level, support services’ duty is to serve the people of the country directly, as I do when I play in the National Guard Band. For example, my unit played at a veteran’s retirement home last February. We played patriotic marches and tunes from the 1940’s to World War II and Korean War veterans. It didn’t matter that we weren’t the New York Philharmonic or the Boston Pops, because I could see how appreciative they were of our simple, out-of-tune gesture of remembering their services to our country. I remember seeing the joy in their faces, and that I almost wept when a couple hobbled from their chairs to the front of the stage and began to jitterbug—what beautiful memories must our performance have brought them. I realized at that moment that I wanted to be a physician to be able to bring people like them even greater happiness, to bring them health, and to bring the encouragement to cope with illnesses and treatments.
Another thing I learned about service was the importance of compassion and empathy. I come from a liberal background full of intellectual individualism. By contrast, the vast majority of the other trainees had the attitude that they were serving to protect the freedoms of their fellow countrymen. They could love the average joe so easily while I came from a place where people were condescending towards the average joe. In working as a team to survive basic training, I realized that I could overcome my individualistic attitude and truly know and appreciate my fellow countrymen. I learned to love and respect people like my fellow soldier Morales, a Cuban immigrant who was the first person in her whole family to graduate from high school. I befriended Attson, a Navajo girl who had a life of running from cops and seeing family members in and out of jail. In this way, it was undeniably a “put yourself in the other’s shoes” kind of experience that taught me things I will use as a doctor to understand my patients. For a summer, I spent meaningful time getting to know first-hand the general population that I plan to serve as a doctor.
The army definition of selfless service is “To put the welfare of the Nation, the Army, and your subordinates before your own.” In the same way, being a physician is about service, about putting the patient’s needs in high esteem, and I am thankful I joined the armed forces if only to experience this lesson.Emily Shin, 2LT, USA
Columbia College 2004