Veteran medical student trades in uniform for white coat
After career in the U.S. Army, Davin Combs was drawn to life of service in medicine.
From the time he was a small child in Fort Collins, Colorado, Davin Combs felt innately drawn to meaningful careers of service and adventure. As he grew, his once-imaginary jobs as a soldier and a firefighter would become a reality. Once he left the U.S. Army, though, he felt something was missing.
“I think for a lot of veterans, we get out and have a hard time replicating the level of experience and meaning in our work,” Combs said. “It’s a different type of service, but medicine is the one thing that I have found that can replicate the intensity and the personal satisfaction of the military.”
As a fourth-year student at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine (VTCSOM), Combs is putting the lessons he learned over six years as an Army cavalry scout to use helping others. Long-term, he envisions a career treating patients as well as preparing first responders to perform front-line medical treatment that will improve outcomes. He already is feeling the fulfilling returns from his path change.
“I’ve been doing emergency medicine in my clinical rotation,” he said. “And just this week, I’ve had very ill patients who I’ve been able to directly help. It’s that feeling of making a real difference that is hard to match.”
Combs’ path to VTCSOM was an atypical one. He recalled watching the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when he was 11 years old and being very emotionally affected and feeling a desire to support the military. After a lack of clear direction in high school, he earned his GED diploma at the age of 17 and joined the Army with his parents’ requisite signatures.
He served two tours of duty in Iraq, from April 2009-May 2010 in the marshy landscape of Amara between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and from August-December 2011 at Al Asad Airbase during a dangerous period of U.S. withdrawal. Combs said those experiences taught him lessons he carries with him through medical school.
“The military can foster the importance of the mission, teamwork, service above self, commitment, and grit,” said Jon Sweet, chair of the VTCSOM and Carilion Clinic department of medicine and an Air Force veteran himself. “I have come to know Davin a bit after our brief time working together. He has demonstrated these traits in spades during his time at VTCSOM, which helped him face and overcome some daunting challenges. The military first trains one to be a valuable follower, so that one might develop into a leader of others. I certainly see this in Davin.”
Combs began his undergraduate studies at the University of Texas at El Paso at night while completing his time in the Army. He was also working as a volunteer EMT and firefighter. Meanwhile, he and his wife had their first son. They now have three sons, ages 9, 6, and 8.
“Many veterans struggle with challenges such as post-traumatic stress and depression once leaving military service. In my opinion, a great deal of this struggle is born from struggling to find a pursuit that is as fulfilling as the military,” he said. “While replicating certain experiences one has in the military will not be fully possible, it is critical that service members look ahead to a life after service and take the lessons they learned forward to create a meaningful life once their time in uniform ends. There really are no limits to what one can accomplish once they leave active duty.”
Combs completed his service in the Army in 2014 and spent time at the U.S. House of Representatives as a legislative assistant, working frequently with other veterans and helping them gain access to quality health care.
“My work after the Army with the policy side of the House in D.C. was eye-opening. I think veterans don’t always understand what they bring to the table,” he said. “There are many barriers for them to enter the field, but veterans bring a lot of skills that are very valuable in medicine. Professionalism, perseverance, the ability to overcome adversity through resilience, and a certain standard of moral and ethical existence all are essential qualities.”
Sweet echoes those sentiments, citing his own time in the military and working with other veterans at Carilion Clinic and VTCSOM.
“Through my experiences and training in medicine in the Air Force, I learned lessons and traits such as putting others before self and focusing on the team,” he said. “When I joined Carilion after seven years on active duty, I joined an organization in which three residency program directors, the designated institutional official for graduate medical education, and two of my senior partners in general internal medicine were all retired Army colonel physicians. I felt right at home!”
Combs says his new home at VTCSOM and in Roanoke was a perfect fit for himself and his family even though he enrolled before knowing the extent of Virginia Tech’s motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve).
“The vibe and energy and genuineness of the people at Virginia Tech and VTCSOM was really appealing to me. Now that I’m here, I find it serendipitous that it has this motto,” he said. “I go down to the War Memorial any time I’m at main campus. I’ve taken my boys there and we find a name to look up, and I tell my sons about them. There is a rich history at Tech of carrying that motto forward and now that I’m here, it’s something that I have a really deep appreciation for.”
Once he completes medical school in May 2023, Combs has his next steps in mind for how he will carry his service forward. He wants to complete a residency in emergency medicine and fellowships in emergency medical services (EMS) and tactical medicine.
“My end goal is to have an active academic practice in an emergency department and act as a medical director of a major EMS agency,” he said. “I also want to have an active, ongoing roll in tactical medicine, preparing police officers to provide better medical care. I want to help make pre-hospital care, especially in worse-case scenarios, much better.”
Combs’ uniform is now a white coat, but he remains drawn to a life of service.