RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The University of North Carolina is starting a new master's degree program that's sparking a lot of interest among veterans. The program at the university's school of medicine is designed specifically for former military medics. As Jessica Jones with North Carolina Public Radio reports, the idea is to help translate the veteran's unique skills to the civilian world.
JESSICA JONES, BYLINE: It's an early weekday morning and about a hundred medical students, residents and faculty members of the University of North Carolina are settling into an auditorium for a weekly lecture. But today, there's a special guest from Fort Bragg, where some of them also take courses. Army Sergeant Karl Holt is recounting a deadly helicopter crash in Afghanistan in 2009.
SERGEANT KARL HOLT: I was unable to walk, but crawled and had each patient brought to me, and I would triage them and basically made piles of casualties with various degrees of injury and who I would get to or try to get to first.
JONES: Holt, who's a Special Forces medic, quickly staunched wounds and splinted broken bones. As an instructor at Fort Bragg, he teaches everything from stitching perfect sutures to intubating patients. Yet Holt says despite all of that medical experience, he couldn't get hired outside the military today.
HOLT: It is amazing how the world is wide open to you in one sense, yet in another sense you come home, and you have no job. You can't even be, you know, just a normal paramedic.
JONES: A new program at the UNC School of Medicine aims to address this issue. In 2015, the school will open the country's first two-year master's degree program for Special Forces medics seeking to become Physician Assistants. Dr. Bruce Cairns is a surgeon at UNC who's helping to start the program. As a former Navy doctor, he understands their special skills.
DR. BRUCE CAIRNS: If you look at the numbers, it's harder to become a Special Forces medic than it is to be a high school football player who wants to play in the NFL, but that's what we need as we develop as an academic medical center.
JONES: Members of the military's Special Forces are chosen through a grueling process. The 12-person teams often work abroad in remote areas for months at a time. Usually two members of those teams are trained as medics, which Cairns says are sorely needed.
CAIRNS: We have a tremendous health care provider shortage in the country, now, particularly in rural underserved areas. And these people, that's their expertise, and they like to function in these austere, rural environments. They're just perfect for what we need.
JONES: Mike Haynie heads the Institute for Military Veterans and Their Families at Syracuse University. He acknowledges the UNC program is small and selective, with only 15 slots in its first entering class. But Haynie says the real benefit lies in the program's concept.
MIKE HAYNIE: For me, the real power beyond the veterans that will benefit from the program directly, is this idea of setting an example for other institutions of higher education to follow in their footsteps.
JONES: Haynie says one of the biggest obstacles veterans face is translating their skills and getting credentialed. But the admissions staff of UNC's physician assistant program will know how to interpret military resumes. This program would have helped Special Forces medic Karl Holt, who's already spent three years preparing to apply to medical school.
HOLT: Oh, I probably would have already been well ingrained in the program by now. It was a time issue.
JONES: Holt says his students and colleagues are bombarding him with questions about the program. A $1.2 million grant from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina will initially fund salaries and scholarships. For NPR News, I'm Jessica Jones in Durham, North Carolina.