From Marine to doctor, veteran named Tillman Scholar

by Mark Guydish, The Times-Leader (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.)
Stripes Okinawa

KINGSTON, Pa. — Marine to teacher to future doctor, Jason Homza seems to be a bit of an overachiever, despite the disarming smile and self-effacing humor. But if he does keep punching above his weight — he admits most Marines “are taller than me” — one thing is clear: It’s about others, not himself.

That fact was recognized recently when he was named a Tillman Scholar, an award created in the memory of Pat Tillman, who gave up his professional football career to join the Army following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and was killed in Afghanistan.

“My older brother was in the Marines,” Homza recounts when asked why he signed up for the few and the proud. “He was home on leave and got hit head-on by a drunk driver. It was bad. He wasn’t expected to survive at all.

“Yet jump ahead a few years and not only did he make a full recovery, he went through surgery, therapy, from wheelchair to walking to running, and actually ended up going back full time to active duty and was deployed to Iraq.

“You hear about how Marines are tough, but after I saw his recovery, I decided I wanted to be part of that kind of commitment.”

So he joined the Corps, where he was deployed to Iraq — though he admits he was also lucky enough to be sent to Hawaii for a bit. After his discharge, he enrolled at Wilkes University to become a teacher.

“I wanted to stay local,” he said of the school choice. “After four years in the Marines, I didn’t want to move around too soon again.”

Degree in hand, he taught high school science in Scranton, but started feeling he could do more, and decided to go to medical school to become a doctor — picking, again, the local choice, Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine, formerly The Commonwealth Medical College.

Mark Kaster, a lecturer and counselor at Wilkes who is also a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, recalled frequent conversations with Homza, both before and after he graduated.

“He was a special young man,” Kaster said. “He came to me when he wanted to be a doctor, and I thought here’s a guy who wanted to help kids be the best they could be, and now he’s in medical school and wants to help people heal. Wow, what can you say?”

Homza cites his brother’s recovery as a reason for shifting to medicine. Watching all the people who helped in that process inspired him to pursue a new career that, until then, had been only a back-burner notion.

“When I went to college it was more like a dream to me, something I wished I could do,” he said. “But it really never left my mind.” So he chucked an education career with a good salary and a guaranteed pension to head back to school. “I guess I came to the realization that if I don’t take the shot and do it now, I’m never going to.”

Launched in 2004, the Tillman Foundation started awarding scholarships in 2008 to scholars who “show extraordinary academic and leadership potential, a true sense of vocation, and a deep commitment to create positive change through their work in the fields of medicine, law, business, policy, technology, education and the arts,” according to the foundation website.

To date, 520 people have been named as Tillman Scholars, and Homza concedes its pretty heady company. “It’s a big honor to me,” he said. “It’s a really accomplished and impressive group of people, people you can tell are going places.”

He cites information on the website about a Tillman Scholar who served as a Navy SEAL, went to college and earned a degree in math, then went to Harvard Medical School. “As if being a Navy SEAL wasn’t enough,” said Homza of that high achiever. “And during residency at Harvard, he got accepted into the astronaut program.”

“It’s such an honor to be on the same page as someone like that, or at least on the same web page.”

©2017 The Times Leader (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.)

Visit The Times Leader (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.) at www.timesleader.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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