Robert Athey’s mind is on medical school after wrapping up his senior year at Baylor University and a demanding research internship at Waco’s Veterans Affairs Center. But his mind often returns to a scene in rural Afghanistan and the sight of frantic parents rushing to his patrol base with a toddler in their arms.
Athey, then a Marine corporal, listened as the parents pleaded with Athey and others in his infantry battalion to do anything they could for the boy, who they said suffered from spina bifida. He was not eating and was having difficulty breathing. The nearest hospital was a day’s journey through Taliban territory for the family, and they saw no other option than to approach the military base and beg for help.
As part of Athey’s job as an intelligence analyst, he often served as liaison between the troops and Afghan locals. Most of the time, that job entailed trying to appease Afghan poppy farmers who complained that military units driving through their fields to avoid roadside bombs damaged their poppies, the primary cash crop from which opium is derived.
But seeing that child lying motionless in his father’s arms moved Athey. He looked at the battalion doctor, who shook his head. He told Athey there was nothing they could do. The child likely would die within hours, the doctor said.
They reluctantly turned the family away. Athey never learned the child’s fate.
However, the emotional experience convinced Athey to set his next career path toward becoming a doctor, perhaps a pediatrician.
“There wasn’t anything we could do for them,” Athey said. “That was something that really affected my decision to go to medical school. I really wished I could have done something. The parents were extremely upset, and we had to turn them away. I don’t know if I would call it a life-changing moment, but it was definitely one of the reasons I wanted to be a doctor.
“When I saw that kid, I would have done anything. I would have carried the baby myself to the hospital if I could have. That was one child, but there are hundreds of thousands of persons like that suffering every day.”
Four years later, Athey is on his way to the McGovern Medical School at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. He graduated from Baylor on Friday with a 3.78 grade-point average with a major in biology and a minor in biochemistry.
While at Baylor, Athey distinguished himself and won an award while completing two successful internships at the Waco Center of Excellence, a research facility on the Doris Miller Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center campus in Waco that deals with veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.
Richard Seim, a clinical psychologist and director of training at the Waco Center of Excellence, said that of the 99 students who have graduated from the program over the years, Athey was easily in the Top 5.
“Rob was selected out of a large group of candidates. We only bring in the best of the best at Baylor,” Seim said. “He was top notch at school and also a veteran and came highly recommended by Baylor, saying this is one of our real go-getters. Baylor’s promise rang true.
“As soon as I met Rob, I was impressed. He is disciplined, smart and with a deep intellectual curiosity you often don’t find in people in his stage of life. What really made Rob stand apart from his peers was his drive and his personal passion for this work. I think a lot of that came from his experience being a Marine veteran and I think this was certainly meaningful for him to be able to contribute to research that helps veterans.”
Athey, 27, grew up the son of a Marine veteran, who moved the family around quite a bit while working for the BNSF Railway. At 17, Athey was more interested in playing guitar with his friends or studying film than doing his high school work in Lincoln, Nebraska.
“I was a smart student who didn’t apply himself,” he said with a grin. “I didn’t really feel like my life was heading in a positive direction, so I figured the Marine Corps was my best choice. I just felt like I wasn’t really doing anything with my life. I was hanging out with a crowd that I shouldn’t be hanging out with and I figured if I went to college at that point I wasn’t going to be successful. I wouldn’t have ended up in medical school. I needed to do something that took my life in a different direction and to step back from college.”
So in 2008, his parents signed the paperwork for Athey to join the Marines because he was only 17.
“I wanted to go to Afghanistan,” Athey said. “I wouldn’t have joined if we weren’t at war. All my friends were going to college. That was what you were supposed to do. But I wanted to do something that would actually make a difference, and I had an opportunity to be a part of history. I wanted to do something I could tell my kids one day that I was a part of.”
Athey spent three months in boot camp in South Carolina, a month in combat training in North Carolina and six months in Virginia training for his chosen job field as an intelligence analyst.
He left for the first of his three deployments from Camp Pendleton in California as a member of the First Battalion, First Marines. He went aboard a ship as part of a quick-reaction Navy force that sailed the Indian Ocean, to Thailand and Australia for the next seven months.
He next spent six months in Afghanistan, where he was involved in several combat skirmishes. In his third deployment, Athey spent four months as part of a security detail at the U.S. Embassy in Yemen.
It was while he was in Yemen that Athey narrowed his college choices to Baylor, Pennsylvania State University and Washington University. He said he chose Baylor because it has an impressive record working with veterans in the Yellow Ribbon program and because he had some military buddies who were living in Dallas.
Athey said he enjoyed his time at Baylor and working with Seim in the Center of Excellence, one of only three such centers in the country.
“I learned a lot,” he said. “I got a lot of really good research experience and I got to work with a lot of veterans who were struggling with PTSD, traumatic brain injuries and those types of issues. It was rewarding to just be able to contribute to that in some capacity.”
At the VA center, Athey analyzed data from electroencephalography scans, trying to find therapies to mitigate the effects of certain brain injuries and to assess how injuries affect brain function.
Seim said Athey excelled, partly because he was a veteran and had a passion for helping others.
“We can help veterans change their brainwave patterns with this EEG neurofeedback,” Seim said. “We hook them to sensors around their skull, and when certain images pop up on screen, you train yourself to react to the image, to change that brainwave. The hope is veterans will be in a better brainwave pattern when they go meet with their psychotherapist. Rob was looking at data from EEGs and seeing how it correlates to changes in their brain using a brain scan.”
Katy Humphrey, another Marine veteran who graduated from Baylor on Friday, is a friend who considers herself a “big sister” to Athey. The two actually met when they were deployed in Afghanistan but crossed paths again at Baylor.
Humphrey, 35, a native of Deadwood, South Dakota, was a Marine gunnery sergeant and in charge of a group of intelligence analysts in Afghanistan.
“We both worked intelligence, and I was the watch chief,” Humphrey said. “So if anybody needed to talk to my analysts, they had to go through me first. Oddly enough, the majority of my analysts were women. They were all very pretty women. So Rob was one of the typical Marines who said, ‘Hey, I need to talk to your analysts.’ I knew what he was up to, so I ran him out of there.”
Later, while both were at Baylor, Athey saw her in a class for veterans and told her she looked familiar. After they figured out how they knew each other, they shared a laugh about how they met.
“In the Marine Corps, Rob was an analyst, so he has that type of mindset anyway,” Humphrey said. “So that is probably what made him so good at looking at those scans. He is a good kid. He is a good egg. I am absolutely 100 percent sure he will be successful whatever he does. He is very driven and very caring.”