A Bomb Blast Redirects a Soldier's Career from Serving in the Armed Forces to Serving in Medicine

Senior Airman Josh Labott awoke from unconsciousness in significant pain after a blast. His head and back hurt. He couldn’t hear. But he knew he was in trouble and his unit was under siege.

Josh had enlisted in the Air Force a few weeks before his 18th birthday in 2006. A bomb disposal expert, Josh was deployed to Afghanistan and was already three months into his second overseas deployment in January 2010. On the day he was injured, Josh and his infantry squad had set out to help secure a school that planned to allow girls to enroll; the Taliban ambushed his patrol with six concealed bombs.

Two members of Josh’s patrol died. Another lost a leg during the ambush. Helicopters provided air support, and others joined the fray, allowing the wounded to be evacuated.

“I was one of the lucky ones,” Josh says.

An Epiphany

It was during this catastrophe that Josh saw the vast capabilities of medicine. Despite his own injuries — a traumatic brain injury and ruptured disks in his back — Josh says, “When I woke up, my combat lifesaving skills instantly kicked in. I scrambled alongside the medics trying to control the blood loss of the injured soldiers in my patrol.”

“After the adrenaline wore off, that’s when I realized I’d found my calling,” Josh says. “I knew that I was meant to serve others.”

Learning Through Life

Josh was raised by his grandparents and was occasionally shuffled from family member to family member. Josh grew up never going to the doctor, and he learned early how to water down a gallon of milk to make it last all week. The necessities of life didn’t leave money for much else.

“We went to the Salvation Army for Christmas,” Josh recalls. “I remember waiting for our bag of toys. We’d use records for Frisbees, because we didn’t have a record player. But I still felt fortunate to have a roof over my head and three meals a day, usually.”

At age 9, Josh joined his father, a maintenance man for an apartment complex, in Milwaukee. Josh and his father then moved to Big Bend, Wisconsin, about 19 miles southwest, where his father worked hard, eventually training to become certified in HVAC and buying a home when Josh was 13.

By his sophomore year of high school, Josh knew he wanted to see the world through the military like his grandfather, a former Marine, had done. But that required a high school diploma. None of his immediate family members had graduated from high school, and they urged Josh to be the first. “College was never really an option for me,” he says.

Josh got his high school degree and decided to embark on a 20-year military career. Little did he know how much shorter it would be.

Recovery and Realization

Immediately after the roadside bomb explosion, Josh recovered in Afghanistan. His hearing returned, he received physical therapy for his back, and he participated in Eastern medicine practices for three months. Undeterred by the rigors of his recovery, Josh completed his tour of duty.

Josh was then reassigned in the Air Force to Turkey, where he was a teacher and supervisor for recent graduates of the bomb disposal school until his medical discharge in August 2012.

“It was hard to imagine being anything but in the military,” he says. But he knew it was time to listen to the calling he’d recognized back in Afghanistan. At 24, he applied to Marquette University, which was near his home. He began his path to medicine with his undergraduate work in an accelerated three-year program in biomedicine. “I wanted to finish fast, so I took full loads each semester and summer. I lived at home to be near my family and friends,” he says.

A Generous Gift

When it came time to choose a medical school, Josh had his sights on a nearby large university because of its veterans benefits. Then a friend whose parents worked at Mayo Clinic told him about Mayo’s medical school.

“The more I researched the school, the more I knew this was the school I wanted to go to,” Josh says.

Josh was most impressed with the collaboration among the students, the fostering of teamwork instead of competition and the ongoing motivation for all students to do their best.

But could he afford to go to Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine when the other school had veterans benefits?

He applied for a scholarship.

As a nontraditional student and recently married, Josh could attend medical school only with financial assistance. Because of the generosity of benefactors to build Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine’s endowment, Josh was awarded this assistance, making his attendance at Mayo Clinic’s medical school a reality.

In the fall of 2019, Josh entered his fourth year of medical school with plans of becoming an orthopedic surgeon.

“The financial aid I have received during my education has been life-changing. This has taken away a huge stressor that would have distracted and distressed me during my medical school training,” he explains. “This aid has allowed me to study and focus solely on medicine and not on how I would pay back what could have added up to massive loan debt. I now have the freedom to choose a specialty and career path knowing that a loan burden will not affect that choice.”

In turn, Josh wants to give back by helping other veterans, amputees and young soldiers.

“After being blown up,” Josh says, “I figured medical school couldn’t be that hard.”

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