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Being a physical therapist (PT) with the military has been a dream of mine since high school. It took me way too long to figure out that this dream could easily become a reality. There is a lack of information out there about how to go about it, which is why I want to share my own experience.
Just to be clear straight off the bat, I am not an active duty member of the Air Force. I have just been fortunate enough to find a job as a contractor, working as a physical therapist as part of a human performance team. I am embedded in a special operations unit of the Air Force, more specifically the TACP community.
What is a Human Performance Team (HPT) ?
Although this may vary, my HPT consists of a physical therapist, 2 strength and conditioning coaches/exercise physiologists, and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). My team is the only one in our program that is lucky enough to have a Physicians Assistant (PA), as well.
What does it mean to be an embedded PT?
To be embedded in a unit means that our HPT is on-site at the same location as the squadron. The team is dedicated to providing care and services solely to that unit. When a member needs treatment, they are able to come directly to us without a referral. This means they receive treatment much more rapidly than if they were to go through their assigned medical treatment facility (MTF).
What is a TACP?
Just in case you are curious about what a TACP is… TACP stands for Tactical Air Control Party and they are members of the Air Force Special Warfare. Their job includes joining the Army and Marines on the frontlines, controlling air craft from the ground, and calling in air strikes at the appropriate time and location. They are trained in fast roping and static line/free fall jumping from aircraft, which is sometimes required to get to their required position. They are tactical athletes requiring elite physical and mental conditions. This is why they have an embedded HPT.
What makes being a military physical therapist awesome?
A military PT has the authority to perform dry needling regardless of what state he/she is located. The PT can also prescribe certain meds, and order imaging and durable medical equipment (DME). These are practices that civilian PT’s have been fighting for for a long time.
Also on the plus side- care is not driven by reimbursement and you don’t have to deal with insurance companies. This means no arguing for more PT visits or authorization, and no billing issues. And most importantly, no having to overload your schedule with patients just to survive. I get to spend one-on-one time with each member, as needed, so they get the care they deserve. Sounds like a dream right?
Perks of the job
Being embedded in a unit means we are considered part of the family. Especially once you build rapport with the guys/gals and they realize you are there to help them. The goal is to keep them in the fight, not to hold them back.
Being part of the family means being included in all of the team building events. It’s always fun making your friends jealous when it’s the middle of a workday and you post pictures of hiking, playing tactical laser tag, doing escape rooms, etc… The cohesion of a unit is super important for the mission. Plus, who would rather be working?!
As a physical therapist, it is also important to understand what the physical requirements are to be a TACP. This means experiencing some of it myself i.e. putting on a ruck sack, watching different types of exercises, going up in a Blackhawk, observing training sessions, etc… Fun stuff!
So what are the negatives??
Military bases usually aren’t located in the most exciting areas. I have a little over an hour ride to work because I choose to live in Raleigh where there is a lot more going on. This is really the only thing I could complain about, but I just utilize the driving time to listen to audiobooks and podcasts.
Because of location, it is sometimes difficult to fill open physical therapy spots. This means, these jobs are not as scarce as you think. I actually got my job by applying to a post on Indeed. Still to this day, I see other contracting companies with ads up for similar positions as well. If you are willing to relocate, I think the job opportunities are out there if you just look.
*I do want to mention that in addition to embedded physical therapists, there are also outpatient and inpatient physical therapists at the MTFs and hospitals on base, as well as in VA hospitals and medical clinics. However, I have never held one of these positions and therefore cannot speak to them.*
The 3 Ways You Can Be a Physical Therapist with the Military
1. Active Duty
You can join the military first and then attend physical therapy school, which is very difficult to be chosen for. Or, more likely, join the military after completing physical therapy school. Along with all the awesome benefits of being active duty, you have to be ok with the likelihood of moving locations every 3 years and the potential of being deployed. Visit airforce.com/careers/detail/physical-therapist for more info.
Being a contractor means you are employed by a contracting company, not by the government.
As a contractor, you usually get paid more especially to start off. However, there is no real sense of job security because your company can lose the contract once the term is up.
You can find these jobs on any employment search engine (i.e. Indeed.com).
3. GS (General Schedule)
This means you are directly employed by the government and have a job as a civilian.
A GS job is more permanent which gives you solid job security. You will most likely start out with a lower salary but increases with time per a systematic pay schedule (hence “general schedule”). And of course, the benefits are incomparable. Depending on how long you are employed, a pension and health care benefits may last well beyond your years of employment. (You can find these types of jobs on usa.gov/job-search)
If you can’t tell, I do love my job and feel like I have come full circle from when I first decided that I wanted to become a physical therapist in high school with the original idea of doing so on a military base.
I can only hope that I may help other future PT’s learn what being a military PT is all about.
Feel free to drop any other questions you may have below, and I would be glad to answer them!! And don’t forget to visit my About page to learn more about the Fit 4 The Fight mission.