By Senior Airman Kayla Newman, 455th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
/ Published April 03, 2014
BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan (AFNS) -- As a young 14-year-old boy sat on the roof of the house he had just been kicked out of; he knew in that night of reflection that he had to get away and make a change.
Now more than 30 years later, and an officer in the Air Force, Maj. Felix Islas explains how he went from being homeless at 14-years-old to being the only physical therapist at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan.
"I had been kicked out of my house because I was a problem child," explained Islas, the physical therapy element chief of the 455th Expeditionary Medical Operations Squadron. "One night it was raining, so I snuck back into my house and went up to the roof and sat underneath an overhang. I asked myself, what am I going to do? I can't just do this. I need to do something."
Islas sat underneath that overhang for most of the night trying to figure out what he needed to do, and the first thing he realized was that he had to get out of his hometown.
"I knew I needed to leave Port Lavaca because everyone already knew me and I had a bad reputation," Islas recalled. "I was not a good person at that time and I needed to go somewhere where people didn't know me and I could start over."
Islas made a promise to himself that night that he would earn a college degree and he would become an officer in the military. So, with $20 in his pocket and recently dropping out of high school, Islas set out to make his dreams come true.
After earning his GED diploma, Islas began his military career. Since his grandfather served in the Navy during World War II, Islas chose to enlist in the Navy.
"I always felt like the military was my route," Islas said. "If I could get into the military I could go to college, because there was no other way for me to go."
Thus began a journey that would lead Islas into three different military branches and more than 29 years of active-duty and reserve service.
In the beginning of his military career, Islas didn't know he wanted to become a physical therapist. It wasn't until he was introduced to the career field by a friend, that his interest was peaked and he wanted to know more.
"I knew a friend at the time and they had mentioned wanting to become a physical therapist, and I thought "Oh wow, what's that?" Islas recalled. "I remember my friend knew a physical therapist that owned her own clinic, so I went with them one day and saw the people exercising and I saw the physical therapist doing her examinations, and I thought you know what, I could do this."
At the time however, Islas didn't know how difficult it would be to get into physical therapy school. He started out in junior college and received his associate degree as a physical therapist assistant, which for Islas, was his foot in the door.
Islas began taking night classes until he received his bachelor's degree and wanted to earn his commission. While school seemed to be too difficult at times, Islas met and eventually married his supportive wife, Rowela, during that time.
"She believed in me when I told her that I would get my bachelor's degree and get my commission as an officer," Islas said. "She felt like I would do all the things I said I would do and she was there for me when I was struggling."
However, at that time the Navy wasn't looking for any officers, so Islas joined the Army Reserve.
"Once I got my bachelor's degree, I met someone in the physical therapy program that was holding mock interviews for people interested in going to physical therapy school at the University of Houston," Islas said. "So I went to the interview, and I was told that I was a perfect candidate for a special program that they had."
Islas thought he had finally caught a huge break, until he was told he wasn't accepted into the program that he had previously been told he was perfect for.
"I called and I spoke to the lady that told me I was not selected and asked her why," said Islas. "She told me she didn't make the decision and that I would have to speak to the doctor that did. So, I decided I would do just that and I actually went down to the school to speak to him."
As fate would have it, the doctor that didn't select Islas for the physical therapy program was previously in the Marine Corps. As the two were talking, the doctor admitted that he didn't remember seeing Islas's name or package.
"He told me to send him my transcripts when I got home," Islas said. "The next day I got a call saying I had been accepted into the program."
With that, Islas was back on the path to accomplish his goals. He began the program and received his master's degree from the University of Texas Medical Branch-Galveston, with the Army paying for the school.
But, once again Islas wasn't needed.
"The funny part is that when I graduated with my master's degree, the Army said they didn't need physical therapists," Islas said. "A friend of mine who was a nurse in the Army had the same issue; they didn't need any nurses, so he decided to join the Air Force. My friend handed me his recruiter's card and said he heard they were looking for therapists."
Apprehensive about joining a third military branch, Islas called the recruiter once he had exhausted all of his options with the Army. Again, fate put Islas back on track to accomplish his goals.
"I called and explained what was going on to the recruiter," Islas said. "The recruiter couldn't believe I called him, because for one he didn't normally work on Saturdays and also he had just received a letter the previous day saying that he needed to go out and recruit seven physical therapists."
According to Islas, it was meant to be. He joined the Air Force in 2007 and even received his doctorate with the help of the Air Force.
"I am very thankful for the opportunity that the Air Force gave me; it has been a long road," he said. "The military has given me so much over the years and I wanted the opportunity to give back. Being a physical therapist I feel like I can continue to serve and help others."
Fast-forward to present day and Islas is currently deployed to Bagram Airfield from the 359th Medical Group at Joint-Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, and serving as the only physical therapist at Bagram.
Islas runs the clinic by himself and saw 307 patients during the month of December without staff members.
"It's a lot of time and a lot of work, but I was enlisted for 18 years so I am used to hard work," he said. "I'm trying to help as many people as possible because I know I am the only person."
Although it can become challenging seeing many patients on top of covering the front desk, answering phone calls, doing the paperwork and cleaning and laundry, Islas knew he was going to be the only physical therapist and people were going to need him.
"Once I figured out what I needed to do, it was all about balance," Islas said. "I spread my patients out and I see patients by appointment only, that way I can manage my workload."
While some people may be hesitant or not confident in the abilities of others to run a clinic solely by themselves, Islas didn't have to worry about that.
"When I learned that he would be the sole physical therapist at Bagram, I knew that he would not just meet the needs of the mission but excel during the deployment," said Lt. Col. Kevin Tiller, pharmacy flight commander at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, and Islas's former squadron commander at Joint-Base San Antonio-Randolph. "I have absolute confidence in Maj. Islas' abilities as both an officer and a clinician."
Islas treats patients with many different types of musculoskeletal problems, to include Department of Defense civilians, coalition forces, Afghan nationals and members of the U.S. military. Spinal manipulations, taping of sprained body parts, electrical stimulation and the teaching of different exercises and stretches are some of the treatments performed by Islas.
"My mission is to keep people here, in the fight," Islas said. "If I can treat patients and get them better within a week or two, to where they don't have to be sent home, that's what is rewarding to me."
Since being at Bagram, Islas has also had the opportunity to help a 15-year-old Afghan national after she had a tumor in her spine removed.
"In my opinion, being able to teach a young girl how to walk again and being able to pass on information to Afghan national nurses about physical therapy and what I can do to help them when they go to their hospitals, those things are rewarding," Islas said.
Although being the only physical therapist at Bagram has its challenges, Islas has overcome them just as he had to overcome the challenges he faced with trying to become a physical therapist. His hard work and determination throughout his career are the reasons he was able to find success in accomplishing the goals he laid out for himself as a 14-years-old and why he is successful in running a clinic on his own during his deployment.
"I wanted my Airmen to know that if you really work hard and if you make the right sacrifices, the success will come," Islas said. "I tell my Airmen they don't know how many times I was told I can't be an officer, I can't be a physical therapist and how that just made me work harder."
Persistence is what Islas believes people should have if they want to succeed.
"Going from a GED to my doctorate, going from an E-1 to an O-4, it takes hard work," he said. "They just aren't going to give it to you. You have to go out, sacrifice and commit."
According to Islas, anything worthwhile requires commitment and sacrifice.