Miami-Dade County

Combat medic’s healing journey leads to FIU

Staff Sgt. Victor Arvizu has spent 20 years as a U.S. Army combat medic — from the Middle East to the South Pacific. He has pulled glass shards from soldiers’ chests and taken blood samples. He has inserted chest tubes and sutured wounds.

Today, he tends to retired soldiers as a health tech at the Veterans Administration clinic in Pembroke Pines.

But he has long had ambitions of doing more. “All along I’ve wanted to be a nurse,” he said of an aspiration that crystallized into determination during a 2004 stint in Iraq. There he saw nurses knowledgeable about medicine soldier alongside doctors at a combat hospital inside Baghdad’s Green Zone.

So this Veterans Day, Arvizu, 38, is winding up his career with a Florida National Guard unit and getting ready to embark on a transition that’s a sign of the times:

Starting in January he will leave his day job and use the post-9/11 G.I. Bill to plunge into a new program at Florida International University — with a study plan to become a registered nurse in just one year.

The program seeks to tap the talent that has come home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and help likely mostly male, battle-tested medics fine-tune their skills for civilian life. And help stem the national nursing shortage, too.

Rather than study side-by-side with FIU’s first-year nursing students, the program will evaluate these veteran medics and corpsmen and give them credit for both formal schooling and life experience.

Arvizu is a case in point: Nursing students start out at FIU learning to start an intravenous line in a mannequin. Long before he deployed to the Combat Support Hospital in the Green Zone in 2004, Arvizu had already passed the test of putting in an IV on a live person. In the dark.

“The fact that they’ve traveled the world and bring a global health perspective is amazing,” says FIU nursing professor Maria Olenick, who won a $1.3 million federal grant to run the program from 2014 until 2018 with the goal of graduating 90 veteran medics as nurses over the next four years.

“These guys are back and they’re highly skilled,” she says. “Why let them get around as transporters and phlebotomists? These guys could work in critical care, emergency rooms . .. they’re amazing.”

The Veteran Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing program, whose first class will begin in January, is not meant to make the older world travelers start from scratch. Rather, the grant lets FIU provide counseling and a special section to give the veterans credit for past classes and life experience, assessing and “refreshing” their skills while filling in the gaps with formal education.

In the case of Arvizu, he has been taking classes toward a bachelor’s degree between deployments. Once he and his wife, a former Army medic already turned nurse, settled in South Florida five years ago, the goal seemed more achievable.

Then he read in a veterans chat room about the nascent FIU program, found Olenick, and was accepted as the very first student in a class that will, for the most part, segregate the vets from the typical four-year students.

About the program

Olenick says the inspiration was the decade-old Foreign Educated Physicians program that helps immigrant doctors from Latin American and Caribbean countries become certified as medical professionals, usually short of being recognized as physicians.

But the impetus was discovering that the Department of Health and Human Services was entertaining grant proposals under the Hire the Heroes Act (2011) to help skilled veterans become nurses. Olenick applied, and won the grant in September. The funds cover administrative and counseling positions in the medic-to-nurse program that will start with the first class.

Tuition is not a problem. It’s free under the post-9/11 G.I. Bill.

Veterans who served honorably and for at least three years get 100 percent of their tuition covered, a $1,950 monthly housing stipend plus $1,000 a year for books and supplies, said Michael Pischner, director of FIU’s Office of Veteran and Military Affairs.

Pischner says the program is meant to “fill in the gaps of the theory behind” what combat medics have already learned on the job. “In the military they tell you what to do, but they don’t tell you the theory behind it. They already have the practical application; they’ve got that down.”

That’s part of the genius of the program: By segregating and fast-tracking the veterans from students who might have never treated a wound or seen a patient, they can adopt a go-fast approach that gets them into the job market.

Combat medics-turned-nurses might find work in emergency rooms dealing with trauma cases. But Olenick envisions this class of nurses could “help to alleviate the nursing shortages all over ” — for example, in veterans hospitals and clinics because “veterans need a specialized kind of care, someone who’s empathetic to what they’ve been through.”

That was part of her pitch to the federal government for the grant: Florida has the nation’s third-largest concentration of veterans, behind California and Texas.

The program is also modeled after one that is transforming former Special Forces medics into physicians’ assistants at the University of North Carolina, says businessman Raul Mas, a South Florida booster of veterans programs who vouched for FIU’s idea in its grant proposal.

“We’ve got military men and women transitioning from a war footing back to civilian life,” says Mas. “This shows how our community and institutions, like FIU, can come together to facilitate that transition.”

Veterans at FIU

FIU is veteran-friendly, with probably 2,000 veterans on campus, a majority of them studying with funding from the G.I. Bill.

Typically, Pischner says, they are older than the average student, will have joined the military out of high school and might be arriving at a chaotic campus for the first time.

That’s where Pischner’s program, staffed by a dozen veterans and set up in the old air-traffic control tower on the Maidique Campus, fits in. It gives the students a place to go, to collaborate with other veterans — not exactly to recreate life in the military where “life is very structured,” said Pischner, but to network with kindred spirits.

It is the first of its kind at FIU, but with more and more troops separating from service Pischner sees it as a model that could someday be applied to giving credit to Military Police at FIU’s Criminal Justice Program.

“They’re extremely reliable,” he said. “That’s one of the key things you’re going to get with a combat veteran.”

About Arvizu

Arvizu says the FIU program, particularly the Vets Center, allows the veterans to retain a certain sense of discipline in their studies but also a sense of camaraderie that he fears he will miss.

That’s because, after 20 years in the Army, the last five as a Florida Guard medic attached to the Fort Pierce-based MP unit, Arvizu is retiring. At the same time, he says, once retired and done with school, he might seek a stint in the Reserves, as an Army officer.

“You don’t go because you agree with the politics,” he said. “You feel like you need to go because of your buddies next to you.”

Like many Floridians, he is a transplant, a native of Southern California who joined the Army in 1993 for a “four-year getaway” and simply stayed.

As a medic, he spent three years based at Pearl Harbor, traveling the Pacific to such exotic places as Palau and Pohnpei to help screen recruits. He did a deployment to military exercises in Egypt and was scrambled to support the no-fly-zone duty in southern Iraq in the ’90s.

But it was his 2004 tour in Iraq that sealed his ambition to become a nurse.

He worked at Baghdad’s Combat Support Hospital, also know as Ibn Sina, once a private hospital built for Saddam Hussein and his inner circle, and refashioned for troops and Iraqis at the time Arvizu was serving there.

He watched with awe at what truly skilled nurses — men and women — can do in designing care plans and advising doctors on patient needs, fully involved in cases, doing much more than passing out medication.

Veterans today

It is from his perch as a health tech, mostly at the VA clinic, that Arvizu gets to straddle both worlds — and he says it is a good time to be a veteran in America.

“Now that I’m in the civilian world and away from a military base, I really see all the stuff that’s available to veterans — schools, loans. I just think it’s a right time right now to be a veteran,” he says. “During other times it wasn’t as supportive.”

Many of the veterans at the clinic are from the Vietnam era, and they marvel at the respect post-9/11 vets get, which is nothing like the cold shoulder they got for their service in that bitter conflict.

“Most of them were draftees,” says Arvizu. “They just did what they were told, and they shouldn’t have been treated the way they were.”

Today, the public may be divided over the wisdom of our wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, but they don’t blame the veterans. It is a cultural change he attributes to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that pulled the nation together.

“Now, after 9/11 especially, they see we’re dedicated to our job, we’re dedicated to our country, so they appreciate us a lot more,” he said.

“People learned from especially the Vietnam War that we’re just doing what we’re sworn to do. We’re not doing it because we agree with it.”

It’s the kind of introspection that many people reserve for Veterans Day, the national holiday that honors Americans who joined the armed services. But these are everyday conversations at the outpatient clinic where Arvizu works, checking veterans’ vital signs, administering EKGs and collecting lab samples.

“They’re happy that the people have changed and now we’re getting the respect that they should’ve gotten,” he said. “And I agree with them.”

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