Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) set off in 2006 by insurgents in Iraq caused traumatic brain injury and injuries so severe to Marine Cpl. Justin Atkins' left leg and right foot that multiple surgeries had to be done to save their function. His post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was caused in part by seeing a comrade, a Marine he couldn’t help because Atkins was pinned under a Humvee, choke to death on his own blood.
The more you read from Atkins’ Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) 841-page personal health record – the 39-year-old Marine veteran receives full disability payments after suffering combat-related impairments that substantially limit one or more life activities – the more you marvel at the fact that he was able to begin his first year of studies at the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine in July.
“I actually feel real good right now,” says Atkins, who shared his medical records that show he has also suffered chronic back pain from combat-related injuries and lost a front tooth (since replaced) to shrapnel. “I’m exercising, running…I love my classes.”
Unexpected twists and turns – Atkins says that’s what his life has been all about. While some of the unexpected has been far more painful than he’d like, he says his life now has been blessed. His second marriage is going beautifully, and he points out that he has received a full scholarship, along with a stipend, for medical school through the VA’s Health Professional Scholarship Program.
“Under the program, I will have to be a physician for six years with the VA, but that’s what I want to do, anyway. I want to help veterans with their medical needs.”
Atkins, the father of three children, grew up outside of Detroit. His father was a General Motors’ (GM) assembly line worker and his mother a school bus driver who also worked serving school lunches. He never thought he’d go to college, let alone medical school.
“College wasn’t something we talked about at home,” he says. “I just figured I’d do the same kind of blue-collar work as my dad…In our household, my parents were more interested in how I did in athletics than academics…I was basically a ‘C’ student…academics were not stressed.”
He hit hard in football, made all-county linebacker. He also was a rugged defenseman in hockey, and threw a nasty curve as a baseball pitcher. He was good, but not great – he was ready to head to the assembly line at GM after he completed his senior year of high school.
That all changed, however, after al-Qaida terrorists carried out four coordinated suicide attacks in the United States that killed nearly 3,000 people in 2001.
“After the planes hit the twin towers, our teachers said we could go home,” Atkins recalls. Instead of heading home, Atkins and some friends headed for military recruiting stations to enlist for what they were sure was going to be a protracted war. “I went into the Marine Corps because they had the shortest line,” Atkins says.
Atkins wouldn’t go to boot camp for basic training until he finished his senior year of high school. Then, after three months of basic, eight months of advanced infantry training, and a short stint guarding part of the country’s nuclear arsenal at a submarine base in Georgia, Atkins, found himself leading other Marines as an infantry squad leader in Iraq.
Soon after arriving and while helping to secure a desert village so that U.S. Navy physicians could help civilians injured by a devastating insurgent attack, Atkins first developed an interest in a medical career.
“The doctor I was providing security for kept reinforcing the same statement to every patient he cared for – ‘We are here for you.’ That phrase shaped my perception of medicine and ignited my interest in becoming a physician…at the time though, I didn’t think it was very realistic with my academic background.”
Four months after deploying to Iraq, his Humvee hit two buried anti-tank mines in Anbar Province that left him hospitalized on and off for a year. Two of his fellow Marines died in the explosions. Atkins thinks he was pinned under the Humvee – his right foot was crushed – for nearly two hours before the area was cleared so that he could be medevaced out to Baghdad for emergency care.
“I was in shock so I didn’t really feel anything.” He then was flown to Germany before being sent to a Virginia military hospital for specialty orthopedic revisions. “In Baghdad, a trauma surgeon wanted to amputate my foot, but I told him, ‘No way.’ The surgeons at the naval hospital in Virginia were able to take care of it.”
What happened on that day in 2006 caused Atkins to have nightmares for a long time. “I could see that Marine near me choking to death on his own blood, and I couldn’t help him because I was pinned under the Humvee. I kept trying to reach him…I also felt guilty about telling the driver of the Humvee to go left at a fork in the road. That’s when we hit the IEDs. Right, there were none.”
As he lay in the Virginia hospital – he recalls more than 20 surgeries on his leg and foot – his thoughts of becoming a physician materialized once more. “Spending countless days in the hospital left me with little to do but speak with my nurses and doctors. I was fascinated with their daily routines and their stories about what led them to medicine. Once again, I wondered if medicine could be a realistic option for me.”
Through distance learning, he spent time studying for an associate’s degree in general studies from American Military University, which he received in 2011. Whether medical school was a realistic option or not, Atkins wasn’t ready to leave the Marines. His medical records show that he was offered a medical discharge, but he refused it.
“I just didn’t feel it was right to leave other Marines in the fight if I was able.”
In 2008, he went back to Iraq and trained Iraqi soldiers for a year, frequently fighting alongside them in bloody firefights during their patrols.
Before leaving the Marines in 2014 as a sergeant, he spent about four years training Marines and sailors in combat operations at outposts around the world. For more than a year after his discharge, he said he worked at getting his “head straight.” In 2016, he came to Las Vegas, where he used to visit his grandparents, to begin his work on his undergraduate degree in kinesiological studies.
“I still wasn’t confident about my academic work, though I did fine in my bachelor’s work. I figured I could be a physical therapist, but my dream was to be a physician.”
A visit with his father in Michigan, who was dying of pancreatic cancer, convinced him in 2019 that he should try to go to medical school.
“During our final days together, I talked with him about my dream of becoming a physician. He said I should accomplish what I really wanted.”
To gain more practical experience in healthcare, Atkins took a job working in an emergency department as a scribe.
“I was pleasantly surprised by how naturally I fit into the fast-paced work that the emergency department required, and I saw traits in the emergency physicians that I embodied myself. The ability to make timely decisions and think on your feet… I had acquired many of these skills leading Marines in combat, and I really connected with the team in the emergency department.”
After he received his bachelor’s degree, Atkins took courses in chemistry and biology, largely through the University of Missouri-Kansas City, to prepare himself for the medical school entrance exam. He did well, and was offered a seat in the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine Class of 2026.
Atkins knows the kind of physician he wants to be.
“I will be like the Navy physician I guarded who helped the village people in Iraq. I will approach each of my patients with the mindset of: ‘I am here for you.’”