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SHU Physical Therapy Alum Takes Skills to U.S. Air Force

Graduates of Sacred Heart University’s doctor of physical therapy (DPT) program can be found working in hospitals, clinics, colleges and rehabilitation facilities. Over the last 20 years, a number of them also have pursued careers in the United States Air Force, where they use their education and skills to serve their country.

Andrew Smietana, 30, didn’t realize the Air Force was a career option when he entered Sacred Heart’s DPT program in 2013. Now, after three years with the Air Force, Captain Smietana recently earned the Senior Company Grade Officer of the Year Award for the 60th Medical Group at David Grant Medical Center, Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, CA. He competed for the title against more than 400 other captains.

“It’s a great honor,” said Smietana, who received the award during the COVID-19 pandemic, when all hospital departments were working under challenging and changing circumstances.

Smietana knew since he was a teenager that he wanted to pursue a career in physical therapy. As an athlete who played baseball throughout high school and at the Division I collegiate level, the Bethel native frequently found himself around rehabilitation specialists and strength and conditioning coaches who were dedicated to helping their athletes reach peak performance. He also watched a physical therapist help his mother regain her mobility and independence after battling a difficult health situation for several years. “At a young age, I knew I wanted to help people and make as much an impact in other people’s lives as the PTs did in mine,” Smietana said.

He described SHU’s physical therapy program as “incredible” and said he’s thankful for his professors and the rigorous curriculum that prepared him for his career. “Learning PT is not easy,” Smietana said. “SHU’s program was challenging, but the professors definitely set us up to succeed when we entered the real world.”

Smietana believes SHU’s DPT program is among the best. Its problem-based learning model enables students to collaborate with classmates and work through issues instead of being “spoon-fed” information. Professors taught students clinical reasoning skills and how to think “on the fly.” They impressed on the students that all patient cases aren’t “textbook,” he said.

A fateful meeting

An earlier alumnus, Air Force Major Jeremiah Samson ’01, spoke to Smietana’s class years ago about his time as a physical therapist in the Air Force. Samson, 48, is a California native who retired from the Air Force in June after serving for 20 years.

“The Air Force wants us to succeed and provides the resources we need to do so,” Samson said. “The Air Force has an awesome team of physical therapists who want to make our profession better.”

Smietana found Samson’s presentation intriguing, but he wasn’t sure a career in the Air Force was right for him. “I thought it was interesting,” he said, “but I didn’t give it too much thought initially.” He was thinking of a career in the sports field. After Smietana graduated, he worked about two years at a small, outpatient clinic in the New Haven area that focused on sports-related injuries. He knew he was making a difference, but he felt capable of doing more.

Recalling Samson’s presentation, Smietana thought about joining the Air Force. He contacted a recruiter and began the steps necessary to commission as a physical therapist in the military.

“My job challenges me every day,” Smietana said. “I’m so grateful for it—I’m a better leader because of it. I’m so proud of what I’m doing and the people I work with every day.”

As physical therapy element chief at David Grant USAF Medical Center, with nearly 30 military and civilian personnel on his team, Smietana oversees all aspects of inpatient and outpatient PT. He recommends the Air Force for any graduating DPT students. “There is no greater feeling than serving your country,” he said. “I’ve been exposed to opportunities I never would have had on the civilian side.”

Samson echoed Smietana’s statements about SHU, saying its DPT program is exceptional. The problem-based learning technique is one he used throughout his career. “I took so many of the skills I learned from faculty with me,” he said. “They provided us with individual attention, encouraged us and were honest and up-front with students.”

Samson always wanted to serve his country, so joining the Air Force after he earned his degree was a logical step. Throughout his 20-year career, he worked as a clinician, was deployed to war zones overseas and served as an advisor to the Air Force surgeon general. Before retiring, Samson worked as the founding director of the orthopedic physical therapy residency program at Joint Base San Antonio, a military facility in Texas. He said he enjoyed teaching and leading while still seeing patients and providing care.

“It’s been a really rewarding experience,” Samson said. “I’ve made so many friends and created lifelong bonds.”

Other DPT alumni who are serving or served in the Air Force include: Muhammad Ali ’15, ’17, Brian Dilorio ’14, ’16, Chris Ficke ’99, Ben Hando ’01, Jeff Notestine ’11, ’15, Kara Patton ’10, ’13, Eric Stephan ’00 and Rachel (Ebmeier) Thompson ’15.

For more information on Sacred Heart’s DPT program, visit the program’s webpage.

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