Veterans: The Foundation of the PA Profession


We are taking a break this month from the more instructional blog posts to touch base with the foundation of the PA profession: Veterans.

In 1959, the US Surgeon General identified a national shortage of basic medical service providers.

By 1961, the American Medical Association called for a new category of “mid-level providers” to help fill the gap. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization began creating new categories of health care workers in developing countries.

According to the US Army Physician Assistant Handbook, Dr. Eugene A. Stead, Jr. from Duke University, and Dr. Richard Smith from the University of Washington were attuned to the plight of former military medics returning from Vietnam. The handbook states, “These individuals had developed exceptional medical skills while serving in the military, but much of their training failed to translate into civilian education or health care professions. Both physicians felt that these former military medics could be trained to meet the primary care void.”

They were also influenced by the Army Special Forces Medic training program, which trained medics to operate autonomously.

Stead took the idea to Duke leadership and developed a curriculum that focused on clinical training over didactic training. His curriculum also drew inspiration from a program developed during World War II to fast-track the training of physicians.

In 1965, Reader’s Digest published an article mentioning the plan to start the Duke Physician Assistant Program, which led to many inquiries from ex-military corpsmen about this new opportunity.

In 1967, three former Navy Hospital Corpsmen graduated from Duke’s new PA program and became the pioneers of a profession.

Headshots of the first three PAs

To gather support for the program, Dr. Stead collaborated with AMA on an advertisement that ran in the July 20, 1971, issue of Life Magazine. The ad featured a young Black Vietnam veteran washing a car’s windshield. The copy read: “This man belongs in a hospital. Or a doctor’s office. Working alongside doctors, helping to care for patients.” 

Photograph of Life Magazine adIt went on to describe how, for two years, this man was the first one on the battlefield to make decisions that could save the arms, legs, and lives of wounded service members in action, yet, after serving his country, he was unable to get a job in medicine.

The United States military was one of the earliest adopters of PAs among their medical ranks, and by the late 1970s began the move towards commissioning them.  According to the Army handbook, the Air Force was the first to commission PAs in 1978. Despite being an early supporter of the profession, the Army was the last to commission PAs in 1990.

Today, the Veteran’s Administration (VA) is the number one employer of PAs in the nation, with more than 2,500 PAs serving in the Veterans Health Administration. Additionally, the Army handbook says, “Military PAs remain the primary care providers within the White House clinic and support the staff and government workers in the White House compound.”

While the PA profession is by no means limited to former military personnel, we still cherish our connection to those early roots.


With that connection in mind, we asked three of our veteran students to share their thoughts on how their time in the military helped them in their path to the PA profession.


Mark Chamberlain – First-year student
Mark Chamberlain
Mark Chamberlain

At 19 years old, I flunked my first year of college. Feeling embarrassed and indecisive about career pursuits, I chose to take a break from the books and do something adventurous that would take me around the world. My service time in the U.S. Coast Guard would provide much more than that. The military instilled in me a sense of discipline and value in teamwork to achieve an objective. I would carry this with me in my return to academic pursuits after leaving military service, graduating with honors in my undergrad studies to eventually become a licensed Physical Therapist Assistant. Today, I get to pursue my aspirations of becoming a Physician Assistant at Duke, a feat I would never have thought possible. I have the military to thank for teaching me the importance of discipline, the value of comradery, and the life experiences it has afforded me to bring me where I am today.  


Ryan Gonzales – First-year student
Ryan Gonzales
Ryan Gonzales

My time in service while in the Army as an infantryman helped prepare me for PA school by showing me you can still thrive while under pressure. While the types of pressure are very different, they’re both very stressful and can take a toll on your overall well-being. Training in resilience from the military has had a direct translation into how I prepare for each week and every test. I wanted to come to Duke to be trained as a PA because they’re the reason that PA’s exist! They took four people with military experience and crafted them into the profession that are now respected across the world.


Chris Marshall - Second-year student
Chris Marshall
 Chris Marshall

Marshall was recently featured in a spotlight article from the North Carolina Academy of Physician Assistants as part of their “PAs Go Beyond at Every Stage” series.

He spent more than 20 years in the Army prior to PA school. He was a combat medic. He explained that one of his first health care mentors in the Army was a PA, and he found him to be well-versed in clinical skills, preventative medicine, and military-specific skills.

I was in awe of seeing and hearing his vast knowledge. Since then, I have met a few more PAs from that time that are still practicing and continue to mentor me. I would not have gotten into a program without their dedication to me and many before me



On this upcoming Veteran’s Day, we would like to thank each of the amazing veteran PAs for all you contribute to the profession!

The Duke Physician Assistant Program Admissions Blog presents information based on the experiences of Duke PA Program staff and faculty. While the information provided is correct to the best of our knowledge at the time of publication, requirements can change. Please visit the Duke PA Program website for the most up-to-date information.

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