Senior Airman Josh Labott woke from unconsciousness in significant pain after a blast. His head and back hurt. He couldn't hear. He knew he was in trouble, and his unit was under siege.
Labott had enlisted in the Air Force in 2006, a few weeks before his 18th birthday. As a bomb disposal expert, he was deployed to Afghanistan and was already three months into his second overseas deployment in January 2010. On the day he was injured, Labott 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 Labott'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," Labott says.
Despite his injuries — a traumatic brain injury and ruptured disks in his back — it was during this catastrophe that Labott saw the value in medicine. "When I woke up, my combat lifesaving skills instantly kicked in," he says. "I scrambled alongside the medics trying to control the blood loss of the injured soldiers in my patrol."
The experience gave Labott a glimpse of his future. "After the adrenaline wore off, that's when I realized I'd found my calling," Labott says. "I knew that I was meant to serve others."
Growing up, life wasn't easy for Labott. He was raised by his grandparents and was occasionally shuffled from family member to family member. The necessities of life didn't leave money for much else. He learned early how to water down a gallon of milk to make it last all week. Labott doesn't remember ever going to the doctor.
"We went to the Salvation Army for Christmas," Labott 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."
When Labott was 9, he went to live with his father, who was a maintenance worker for an apartment complex in Milwaukee. They then moved to Big Bend, Wisconsin, where his father worked hard, eventually training to become certified in heating, ventilation and air conditioning, and buying a home when Labott was 13.
By his sophomore year of high school, Labott knew he wanted to see the world through the military just like his grandfather, a former Marine, had done. That required a high school diploma. None of his immediate family members had graduated from high school, and they urged Labott to be the first.
"College was never really an option for me," he says. Labott got his high school diploma and decided to embark on a military career. Little did he know how short that career would be.
Immediately after the roadside bomb explosion, Labott recovered in Afghanistan. His hearing returned. He received physical therapy for his back. He participated in Eastern medicine practices for three months. Undeterred by the rigors of his recovery, Labott completed his tour of duty.
Labott 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.
"After being blown up, I figured medical school couldn't be that hard."Josh Labott
"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 in Milwaukee. He began his path to medicine with undergraduate work in an accelerated three-year program in biomedicine.
"I wanted to finish fast, so I took full loads each semester and summer," he says. "I lived at home to be near my family and friends."
When it came time to choose a medical school, Labott set his sights on a nearby large university because of its benefits for veterans. 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," Labott says.
Labott was most impressed with the collaboration among 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, Labott could attend medical school only with financial assistance. Because of the generosity of benefactors to build Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine's endowment, Labott was awarded assistance, making his attendance at Mayo Clinic's medical school a reality.
This fall, Labott began 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 says. "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, Labott wants to give back by helping other veterans, amputees and young soldiers.
"After being blown up," Labott says, "I figured medical school couldn't be that hard."
Note: A version of this story previously was published in Mayo Clinic Magazine.