News

6.26.2014

Medical Student, a Former Navy Pilot, is Named UM’s First Tillman Military Scholar

William Burns, a former U.S. Navy fighter pilot who is entering his fourth year as a medical student, has been named the University of Miami’s first Tillman Military Scholar. The $15,000 award is given by the Pat Tillman Foundation to active-duty service members, veterans and military spouses who are pursuing higher education, and who wish to continue to be of service to others.

“Many would think twice about going back to school later in life for a second career,” said Burns, 40, a lieutenant commander who has been in the Navy for nearly 20 years. “Instead, I see it as an opportunity to continue my service to others through healing. I believe my operational experience will give me a unique perspective in the Navy Medical Corps, and I am excited about the future.”

Burns is the first UM applicant ever selected for the honor, and the only applicant out of seven from UM selected this year. The Pat Tillman Foundation — named for the Arizona Cardinals star who left a successful professional football career in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks to enlist in the U.S. Army, and who was killed in Afghanistan two years later — selected a total of 60 scholarship recipients from 7,500 applications received nationwide.

“This is a tremendous honor for Will and the school,” said Alex J. Mechaber, M.D., Senior Associate Dean for Undergraduate Medical Education and associate professor of medicine. “I cannot think of a student better suited for this award. Will is a class act who represents the fine qualities that the late Pat Tillman displayed.”

The Pat Tillman Foundation agreed.

“William stood out for his desire to not only continue his service at home, but also to leverage his military leadership skills in a new field — medicine,” said Cara Campbell, the foundation’s program manager. “Nearly a quarter of Tillman Military Scholars have similarly gone on to pursue their education in medicine. We’re proud to support him in that endeavor.”

Burns will meet his fellow Tillman Military Scholars at the fifth annual Pat Tillman Leadership Summit, which is being held June 26-29 at Roosevelt University in Chicago.

He became a pilot after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1995, in part because he originally hoped to be an astronaut. Although that never happened, his career has been filled with plenty of Earth-bound excitement. Over the next 16 years, he was deployed to the Mediterranean, to Kosovo, and twice to Iraq and three times to Afghanistan to provide close air support in his F/A-18C Hornet to ground troops in the thick of the action.

Ultimately, however, it was the quieter times during stateside duty that led Burns to medicine.

“I had thought about becoming a physician while I was at Annapolis, but aviation won out,” he said. “I’m not big at sitting behind a desk, so I looked for something else to do in between deployments. When I was stationed with the VFA-25 squadron in California in 2008, I became a volunteer EMT. Later, while working at the Pentagon, I became a volunteer firefighter/EMT for Fairfax County, Virginia. In 2010, I began applying to medical schools.”

In some ways, Burns’ gradual shift into medicine was predestined. Growing up in Tulsa, Okla., he had medical-military role models right at home. His mother was a nurse anesthetist, and his stepfather was a family physician — both had served in the U.S. Army Reserve — and his father had been a U.S. Army Special Forces medic in Vietnam.

Burns is a lifelong Hurricanes fan with a strong interest in international medicine, so the Miller School was also a natural choice. Since he arrived, he has distinguished himself through his leadership — he has been president of his class three years running — and through his commitment to service — he becomes the new executive director of the Mitchell Wolfson Sr. Department of Community Service program, known as DOCS, in the fall.

He has also volunteered his time and expertise through Medical Students in Action (in the Dominican Republic) and Project Medishare through Caneshare (in Haiti), as a Step 1 Review Course teacher and anatomy teaching assistant, and as a volunteer counselor during Heart Week at Camp Boggy Creek, which serves seriously ill children and their families.

Burns will owe the Navy four years of active duty service after he graduates, and unlike most of his classmates, he will be matching with a residency at a military medical center. If he pursues emergency medicine, his options will be Naval Medical Center Portsmouth, in Virginia, or Naval Medical Center San Diego, in California. If he pursues his other interest, trauma surgery, a third option will be Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

“I am committed to service,” said Burns, “but I also am always seeking new challenges. I look forward to a career in medicine because it will fulfill both of those goals.”

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