High school dropout, Green Beret medic who served three tours in Iraq, Special Forces medic instructor at Fort Bragg, lymphoma fighter who is free of cancer today, and future physician and researcher — the remarkable path to medicine of rising third-year UNC medical student Eric Strand.

Today Eric is making the most of the opportunity the UNC School of Medicine has given him and looking forward to providing care and conducting research that one day helps pediatric hematology/oncology patients. Photo by Max Englund.

By Zach Read, UNC Health Care – zachary.read@unchealth.unc.edu

UNC medical student Eric Strand had completed the tenth grade at his Alabama high school in 1997 when he dropped out and left home. Although perfectly capable of academic achievement, breaking free from the structure of school seemed like a great idea at the time. The only problem was that he didn’t know which direction he should go.

To make ends meet, he performed odd jobs and worked in a grocery store, several fast food restaurants, and a steel mill where a job placement agency had found a position for him. Conditions in the mill were miserable, however, and morale was low, so after a few months, he made another change.

“I quit the mill, couch surfed for a while with friends, and quickly wore out my welcome,” he says. “I had too much pride to continue living that way – no job and no place to live – so I got my GED and went down to the local Army recruiting office and joined.”

He tested well on his IQ exam for the military, and his first job in the Army came in 1999 as a counter intelligence agent. Initially, the position excited him because he thought he might want to become a spy, but the people he worked with didn’t form the kind of team he hoped to be part of. After two years in intelligence, he pursued Special Forces.

“I wanted to work with good people – people I respected and trusted and who would contribute to a team environment,” he explains.

So, he signed up to become a Green Beret. A 24-day application program followed, during which his mental and physical capabilities were tested by sleep and food deprivation; personality and IQ tests taken under duress; long, grueling runs and several-day marches while carrying heavy weight; obstacle courses; land navigation scenarios; and a whole a lot of time spent alone.

One of the last challenges was a 50-mile ruck march, alone, with 90 pounds on his back, in less than 36 hours.

“I was destroyed physically,” he admits. “They tax you to the max to see if you’re capable of the demands.”

He completed the initial program and was among a small group of applicants selected for the Green Beret’s two-and-a-half-year training phase.

“I had no clue that I could make it — every step of the way I expected to fail.”

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