joey driskell

Class of 2021: Joey Driskell

When Joey Driskell crosses the stage to receive his physician’s assistant degree from the School of Medicine this May, he will be 40 years old. His wife will be watching. So will his kids. But if you think for one second he’s getting a late start, think again.

Driskell, who grew up in the Columbia area and graduated from Chapin High School in 1999, is settling into a second career after nearly two decades in the military — first with the Navy, then with the Army. “I joined right after I graduated from high school,” he says. “My grandfather was in the Navy. I had an uncle who was a SEAL. I just wanted to go serve.”

But it wasn’t supposed to be a career. Driskell’s original plan was to serve four years, get out, go to college. He enjoyed studying health occupations in high school and thought maybe he’d go to medical school one day. And then Sept. 11 happened. Five days later, he deployed.

“9/11 is actually the reason I didn’t get out,” he says. “I left on September 16, 2001. At that point, I changed my mind about wanting to get out. I didn’t want to get out.”

The next 20 years would be a journey. A strong swimmer, he spent time in the Navy as a search and rescue swimmer and cryptologist, serving with Marine expeditionary units and Naval Special Warfare Command.  Later, he transferred to the Army and went to Ranger school. In between, he enrolled at the University of South Carolina and earned a bachelor’s in accounting and a commission through the Navy’s Seaman to Admiral-21 program.

I did a lot of combat time. I’ve managed a lot of violence, and I’ve committed a lot of violence. This is a way to try and do the opposite.

Joey Driskell, physician assistant major

At different points, he was a special forces combat diver, an Army Pathfinder, a HALO jumper, and an Airborne jumpmaster. In all, he was deployed eight times — four long deployments, four short, 61 months of deployment and sea duty time. He saw heavy fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But he was also a father, at that point unmarried, and when the military began offering 15-year retirement, he weighed his options and applied to get out.

“With my family situation, I put in for early retirement, not thinking that I would be approved because I had so much experience,” he says. “But I put in the packet and within 30 days, really fast, I was informed that I had nine months to retire.”

He was psyched to spend more time as a hands-on dad. The question mark was his career. “I was thinking, ‘Gosh, I’ve got nine months, and after that I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’ve been a kid jumping out of planes and playing with guns all my life,” he says with a laugh.

He had options — law enforcement, maybe FBI or CIA — and he was offered a couple government agency jobs, but everything either required him to relocate or to travel, possibly back to Afghanistan.

“I was like, well, I put in for early retirement specifically because it’s difficult on my children and my family,” he explains. “If I was going to keep traveling, I would just stay in the Army. I loved it.”

But then he started thinking back to that original plan coming out of high school, only now in the context of all he had seen and experienced.

“I had wanted to go to medical school, and I loved my PAs and medics in the military,” he says. “The PAs that worked for me in Afghanistan and Iraq were just amazing, what they did to change the battlefield dynamics, helping with medical projects during non-kinetic operations and also all they did to help the local indigenous civilians.”

On the advice of then-Dean of the School of Medicine Richard Hoppmann, who helped him plot a path forward, Driskell enrolled in the respiratory therapist program at Midlands Technical College, parlayed that into a job at Prisma Health Children’s Hospital, and then entered the School of Medicine’s PA program in 2019.

“It’s been amazing,” he says. It’s also been challenging, even for a guy who went to Army Ranger school, commanded troops in combat and took intensive crash courses in Arabic and Pashto.

“Specifically, the first semester, being thrown to the wolves with the anatomy and physiology, and specifically the cadaver lab,” he says. “It brings a realism to what you’re seeing with a patient and clinically diagnosing. That was lots of hours, but that first semester, having that base, really prepared me for the next two years.”

And now he’s ready to begin that next chapter with Prisma Health, working in the critical care ICUs at Baptist, Park Ridge and Richland Hospitals. It’s a chance, he says, to serve in a new way.

“I did a lot of combat time,” he says. “I’ve managed a lot of violence, and I’ve committed a lot of violence. This is a way to try and do the opposite.”

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