By Hannah Swayze
Ben Welch’s life changed drastically in the 14 years he spent in the United States Marine Corps.
Now 33 years old, Welch graduated high school at age 17 in only three-and-a-half years and immediately enlisted. He was eager to get out of school.
“Education was important and everything,” Welch said. “But I just didn’t want to do it.”
Still technically a child, Welch started on the path of his father and his father’s father, who also served. His military career included three deployments overseas to many locations across the globe as a rifleman, a scout sniper and eventually a logistics officer.
Little did he know, after a decade in the service, a degree in Aviation Management, the birth of his daughter and watching his first wife struggle with addiction, he would end up back in some of the most rigorous schools a person can go through: medical school.
A 14-year career
For Welch, the military was just another part of life. Born in Italy into a military family, he moved from state to state growing up. His father served 28 years as a submarine officer in the U.S. Navy and his grandfather served 24 years as a pilot in the U.S. Air Force. Joining the U.S. Military was a natural step for him.
When discussing his time overseas, Welch uses the same tone of voice as someone describing a trip to the grocery store on a Saturday afternoon.
“Military service had always been something I grew up around,” Welch said.
His duty stations included three overseas deployments. The first was in a marine expeditionary unit. “So you take a fighting force of Marines, put them on ships with the Navy and basically go out and do numerous training exercises,” Welch said. “You’re considered a contingency unit in case your unit is needed.”
He spent six months training in several different countries and helping with humanitarian relief efforts in the Philippines. It was after the first deployment that he went through training to join a sniper platoon and in 2007 was sent back overseas to Ramadi in Central Iraq, west of Baghdad, helping to rebuild the city. He said he was able to stay mostly out of the line of fire during this deployment, while other forces took the brunt of the fighting.
“While we were in Ramadi, our base got mortared several times,” Welch said. “South Central Ramadi was our battalion’s area, the army covered the outskirts of the city. They were getting hit and blown up every day.”
After that, he returned to the U.S. and attended Purdue University where he received a degree in Aviation Management. With a degree under his belt, he became a logistics officer. His third deployment with his new rank included training in Spain, Portugal, Greece and other area of the Mediterranean Sea.
A different kind of fight
During his career in the Marines, while still on active duty, Welch came home from deployment to find himself amidst a completely different kind of fight.
His first wife, who suffered from chronic pain following several fruitless back surgeries, was in the depths of an addiction to opioids and, later heroin.
“So you come home to that, what do you do?” Welch questioned. “You go to the doctor and tell them what’s going on.”
They struggled to navigate the healthcare system trying to get her help from doctors, in treatment centers and through Methadone clinics.
“Watching someone go through heroin/opioid withdrawals was eye-opening,” Welch said.
(Welch is now remarried. He met his current spouse, Jenna, while living in Georgia.)
The time spent helping his ex-wife navigate the healthcare system to receive treatment had many frustrating experiences. Getting insurance to cover treatment, dealing with a spouse receiving Methadone and seeing the struggle influenced his decision to explore the idea of studying medicine.
“I didn’t immediately say, ‘I’m going to go be a doctor,’” Welch said. “Over the next couple of years trying to get her help and just going through everything, that was really my first exposure to some of the issues in healthcare.”
A future in medicine
Now, Welch is a second-year medical student at the Quillen College of Medicine in Johnson City. He traded hours spent in a military base for weekends cooped up in a library studying the inner-workings of the human brain.
This past summer, Welch was named a 2019 Tillman Scholar, the college’s third student to receive the honor. The national program was founded in 2008, and is meant to support active duty service members and their spouses academically with scholarships and professional development opportunities.
As part of his studies, Welch is in the roughly 20 percent of students who are on the college’s Rural Primary Track, described by the school as a “community-based experiential curriculum that prepares its graduates to practice in underserved, rural communities.”
Welch splits time between Rogersville and Mountain City, Tennessee. He is learning from doctors who work in rural areas, which he enjoys. Especially since the drive up is beautiful and relatively remote, which is a bonus.
Mountain City is home to the smallest hospital in the state with only two beds, two full-time family medicine doctors and several nurses, a different experience than students who study in the Mountain Home VA Healthcare System.
“It’s just a whole ‘nother world out there,” Welch said. “The cool part of the program is just getting to see that, getting the experience in a new environment with fewer resources.
So you understand you can’t just order a CT scan on every patient. You actually have to do your hands-on physical exam and do it the old fashioned way. You could refer a patient to a specialist all day, but they might not want to drive to Johnson City so they just might not go. You could wind up having to do stuff that you’ve [only]read about.”
Right now, Welch is focusing on psychiatry and helping others with their mental health issues. He is also interested in a track at the college that will allow him to work in palliative care, an interest he discovered during his volunteer experience with the “no veteran dies alone,” program, sitting with veterans who had already been transferred to hospice and had no one to be with them in their final days.
He said he’s accepted, in-part through his time in the military, that death is just a fact of life. He’d like to help make their last days on earth comfortable for patients, a point every person will reach at some time.
“Once you get past that part of it, it kind of changes your perspective and you can appreciate the little things along the way,” Welch said.
A lesson learned
Welch said people ask him all the time why he doesn’t go back into the military and finish out his career to retirement. Now having been out of the military for a little over a year, Welch said he would really like to focus on helping people through his own psychiatry practice “off in the mountains.”
“[I’d like to help them] find a balance and try to change what is causing their mental health issue, not just get you on some medication and see you back next month. [But] actually try to get to the bottom of it, see if we can’t help them identify what’s going on and try to make some changes.”
Of course, the location is up in the air. He said he and Jenna—the two were married just last year— would have to come to a compromise, since she loves the beach and he prefers the mountains. Plus, he wants a good, stable place for his daughter Bailey to grow up.
However, Welch maintains that he did get a lot out of his time in the military. “That is really what the Marines are kind of known for. Just developing character and really pushing a lot of responsibility down to younger folks and kind of putting you in situations you’re not necessarily 100 percent comfortable with where you don’t have really clear instructions so it’s just kind of like, ‘alright figure it out,’” Welch said.
It gave him a lot of perspective on how lucky those who live in the U.S. are. It also gave him a realistic view of veteran’s issues, especially in healthcare relating to mental illness.
Welch said if there is anything he’s like people to know about veterans, it’s that they are still normal people.
“The only stories you hear [in the media are]veterans committing suicide, mental health issues, that sort of thing,” Welch said. “It’s almost like people feel bad for you because you’re a veteran. And I think [mental illness]is absolutely there… but it’s not something that’s unique to the military. The vast majority of people that get out go on to be successful at other things.”
“Sure there’s some different experiences and stuff but for the most part, we just want to be left alone and treated like normal people, not like some strange group of people that you can’t relate to,” Welch said.