From infantryman to medicine man

By: Nick Mordowanec | Fraser - Clinton Township Chronicle | Published August 27, 2015

 U.S. Army Capt. Hugh McLeod, a physician assistant assigned to the 173rd Brigade Support Battalion, helps load a simulated casualty into a Polish medical evacuation vehicle during training with Polish medics of the 6th Airborne Brigade in Poland on July 2.

U.S. Army Capt. Hugh McLeod, a physician assistant assigned to the 173rd Brigade Support Battalion, helps load a simulated casualty into a Polish medical evacuation vehicle during training with Polish medics of the 6th Airborne Brigade in Poland on July 2.

Photo provided by the Defense Video and Imagery Distribution System


MACOMB COUNTY — Hugh McLeod is a self-proclaimed “army brat” who learned the military lifestyle through his father.

McLeod, 41, is a physician assistant in the 173rd Brigade Support Battalion of the U.S. Army.

His career has taken various twists and turns in a figurative and literal sense, all starting with following in his dad’s footsteps.

“Originally I didn’t know what exactly I wanted to do careerwise,” McLeod said. “I figured I’d do the enlisting thing, go to college and enjoy being on my own. I’m serving and basically doing what my dad did.

“My dad served; his dad served as well. Strong military ties for sure. My whole life has been military, and it’s what I’m comfortable with and it’s what I know.”

He enlisted in the U.S. Army after graduating from Mount Clemens High School in 1992. Following a brief stint, McLeod returned to the area and attended Macomb Community College for two years prior to transferring to Oakland University and graduating in 2003.

His parents lived in Clinton Township, near Selfridge Air National Guard Base — where he worked while in the Michigan National Guard from 1999-2003.

After working part-time and full-time jobs while completing his collegiate studies, his passion for medicine became so apparent that he knew he wanted to work in the field. The problem was that his grades weren’t good enough to attend medical school, so instead, he attained a degree in science, got married and had a child.

He started as an infantryman, though his personal goals changed: He wanted to be there for his fellow soldiers. More specifically, he aimed to become a physician assistant.

Two years into his time as an army officer, in 2007, he applied to the physician assistant program — which was an inner-service program. At the time, he was deployed in Iraq. When he found out his application was accepted he returned to the states in 2008 and moved to Texas.

The program itself is two years long, and since McLeod was accepted four extra months have been added to the program’s prospectus.

The first year was composed of three trimesters at Fort Sam Houston, in San Antonio, Texas. He learned about different pathologies, orthopedics and other specialties. Physician assistants’ main roles involve supporting doctors and being on the diagnostic side, while simultaneously ‘painting a picture’ for the doctor.

An assistant can treat an ailment if they are capable, but otherwise the case will be passed on to a doctor.

“It’s a lot of science, a lot of chemistry, obviously doing anatomy, physiology and pharmacology to learn about medicines,” McLeod said. “You’re also learning and trying to hone your exam skills, like examining patients from head to toe.”

The second year is a clinical experience. McLeod completed that session at Tripler Army Medical Center, in Honolulu, Hawaii. The year was broken down into different subsections, going from specialty to specialty.

For example, after six weeks of surgery, seven weeks of family practice would take place. Once all the tests are passed, the individual receives a master’s degree in physician assistant studies and is able to take the certification exam.

“It’s not normal for sure,” he said. “When I originally enlisted a long, long time ago I was an infantryman and I enjoyed that. It really developed the idea that I wanted to be in medicine. It’s definitely a 180 in terms of how jobs can go.

“I believe (there’s a bond). Just having the background benefits me because I understand what (other soldiers are) going through, what they do on a day-to-day basis.  I can speak with their language.”

Presently, Capt. McLeod is a paratrooper who cares for soldiers in the sky. He practices airborne operation and jumps every few months — sometimes more often than that. Part of his mission involves practice airborne operations.

“It adds a piece to what I do because I’m always jumping or covering, or both at the same time, so you must be prepared to take care of soldiers who get hurt in a drop zone, which they do,” he said.

Now, he is part of Operation Atlantic Resolve and conducts joint training of Polish and Baltic states in Nowa Deba, Poland. June of this year marked an approximate six-week tour of Poland, providing assistance support and rotating medical coverage among different units.

He said he is getting used to training with members of other nations within the NATO alliance, offering the opportunity to maintain friendly discourse and learn from one another.

“It’s good for the U.S. to operate with these military personnel just in case something happens in the future and we have to do something,” he said.

He initially joined his current unit about one year ago, when he was stationed full time in Italy before going to Poland. He has another two years left in Italy, along with about three more years until he can retire from the military.

His plan involves completing 20 years in the U.S. Army and then evaluating the situation. He and his family hope to move back to Michigan, where McLeod can be a physician assistant on the civilian side — especially working with retired soldiers at Veterans Affairs.

“It’s been amazing,” he said. “I’ve been all over the world. It’s difficult, I’ve been away from my family quite a bit and it’s the hardest part of this job.

“It’s eye-opening. I’ve been deployed a couple times and I’m blessed I’m able to keep doing this job and keep going to interesting places and working with interesting people.”