Tactical Insight from a US Marine Pursuing Physical Therapy School

Justin bonzato

This article is a guest post from a reader, Justin Bonzato. Justin is a DPT student at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine. Before PT school, Justin served in the Marine Corps for eight years and completed multiple combat deployments overseas. Justin desires to utilize his experiences in the Marines to serve military veterans as a PT.

Lessons Learned From My First Year of PT School

Before my undergrad years and entering PT school, I served in the Marine Corps for eight years. During my time in the service, I completed multiple combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, and I honorably discharged from the Marines as a Staff Sergeant. 

I am writing to share some valuable lessons I learned from the military that have benefitted me throughout my academic career. I’d also like to share with you some of my experiences in the Marines with important principles that I hope will enhance your time in PT school, whether you are a pre-PT or current PT student. Good to go? Let’s get started.

Train Like You Fight

In my eight years of military service, I deployed overseas a total of four times. Each combat deployment lasted about 7-8 months, meaning the majority of my time in the Marines involved training. As a young Marine, I quickly realized that if I did not take training seriously, it would have severe consequences. The skills I was developing in training made a difference on the battlefield. It was a matter of life or death, and because time in training was limited, I needed to make it count. Each training day demanded my best efforts, and as my sergeant used to remind me, “The only easy day was yesterday.”

My first lesson to those of you in PT school is to remember that Physical Therapy school is your training phase. The significance of viewing school as your training is that it gives you an ability to see it from the proper perspective, from the standpoint that it is okay to fail and learn from your mistakes. The caveat, however, is that you must be vulnerable and willing to put yourself in uncomfortable situations. Trials and challenges will come but press into them because they are opportunities for growth. Be humble and accept that failure is part of the process. Make your training reps count and train like you fight!

Know The Mission Statement

In every operation, whether in combat or training, each Marine had to know the mission statement. In the case of an injured Marine leader during a battle, the next senior Marine would assume leadership and continue the fight. Knowing the mission statement kept each Marine focused on the big picture to move towards completion. Therefore, understanding the mission statement was critical for mission success. 

Your second lesson is this, to set yourself up for success as a healthcare professional, have a clear purpose in mind during your time in PT school. The goal of getting straight A’s in graduate school is short-sighted and unrelated to your long term career. A long term goal to keep you focused might be to develop your clinical reasoning skills to provide exceptional care for your future patients.

Along the same vein, a short term goal is to answer at least one question asked by a professor every day to develop your clinical reasoning skills. Sounds uncomfortable, right? But these are actionable goals that push you out of your comfort zone and remind you day in and day out of your mission so that you can grow and see tangible results. Now a quick lesson in marksmanship that will help you hone in on your target goal: Aim small, miss small. It may not be a perfect shot, but it will be closer to the target than not taking a shot at all. 

The last thing I will say is that mission success requires teamwork. It would be best if you had teammates and support. Share your goals with family and friends, and ask them to keep you accountable. Stand by your classmates who are having trouble in PT school and reassure them that you are with them. You need encouragement and support to sustain your motivation through challenges, and most importantly, you can fulfill that role for others too. 

Pay Attention to Detail

During my time in the service, I had the privilege of attending the Marine Corps Sniper School and earning the title of Scout Sniper. Marine Scout Snipers work in teams of two, spotter and shooter, and believe it or not; shooting is the more straightforward task. The real skill of a sniper is meticulous observation and surveillance. For instance, a scout sniper team stealthily inserts themselves deep into enemy territory to gather intel for higher headquarters. A sniper team spends hours or even days in concealed positions to collect data that will significantly increase the likeliness of mission success. Gathering detailed information about the enemy empowers the Marine commander to take the best possible course of action for mission planning. 

Now, how does this translate to PT school? It does not imply the obsessive memorization of minute facts for neuroanatomy. Doing so might help with an exam, but it will not help you in the long run. I am talking about the details that will benefit your ability to understand information and how best to apply it to clinical practice. For example, before each semester, ask your peers in the class ahead of you about the course load. Ask questions like: What are effective study strategies for “x” class? Did you find the textbook helpful? Do you recommend any supplemental resources? Find detailed information that sets you up for success.

There is no need to reinvent the wheel. Many students have come and gone through PT school, so my third lesson to you is to take time to glean from the valuable information your classmates and professors have already gathered. If you find yourself in between a rock and a hard place mid-semester, it is never too late to ask for help. Be attentive to the details and make observations on how students have succeeded in the past. 

The Debrief: Reflect on Your Performance

After every mission in Afghanistan and Iraq, the team had to attend the debrief immediately. Sometimes we had week-long operations, and we were exhausted. But no matter the duration of the mission, the debrief was the top priority when we returned to base. A debrief is a detailed analysis of all the mission-critical events from start to finish. Every Marine who contributed to the mission planning or execution had to be present at the debrief. Everyone, from the highest to lowest ranking Marine, had the privilege of providing constructive feedback. The goal of the debrief was to affirm the actions that went well and learn from the mistakes that were made. The debrief was a self-evaluation with the purpose to improve on following missions. 

My fourth lesson to you is this, take time to reflect on your performances. Consider your exams to be your missions during PT school, and after every written test or lab practical, write down two things that went well and two things you would like to improve upon. Then, write two actionable goals for your improvement plan. For example, on a lab practical, say you made a mistake on a particular joint mobilization. An actionable goal would be to practice the technique on a friend or family member within the next week. There is no need to make that same mistake twice. 

The debrief is powerful, so do not be scared of evaluating your performance. It will teach you a lot about your strengths and weaknesses and point out areas where you need to focus your energy. 

Slow is Smooth, Smooth is Fast

Close quarters battle, also known as CQB, is the tactical art of gunfighting in urban environments. CQB is dynamic and ever-changing, and it requires careful communication and coordination between team members because there is little room for error when shooting live ammunition in confined spaces. It is the chess of modern combat. If you move too fast, you might make a mistake. Move too slow, and the enemy might overtake you. But if you move deliberately and with determination, your actions will flow smoothly, accomplishing their intended purpose. Smooth moving is fast-moving. 

My final lesson is the foundation of all the principles I have shared with you in this article. Replace urgency with intention and define your mission statement. Acknowledge the dedication required to “train like you fight.” Don’t overwhelm yourself with busyness and miss the details, or you’re in danger of becoming complacent. Learn from past experiences, both yours and others, and see every day as an opportunity to grow.  

We live in a busy world with many opportunities competing for our attention. Focus on the task at hand and be fully present each day. Mission success is not dependent on perfect execution but is the result of adapting and overcoming as challenges arise. Semper Fi.

Tim Fraticelli DPT, MBA, CFP®

Tim Fraticelli is a Physical Therapist, Certified Financial Planner™ and founder of PTProgress.com. He loves to teach PTs and OTs ways to save time and money in and out of the clinic, especially when it comes to documentation or continuing education. Follow him on YouTube for weekly videos on ways to improve your financial health.