By: Karen Dastick
Tracy learned at an early age what grit and survival were all about. Her parents divorced when she was young and with her mother working second shift as a police officer, she and her younger sister were raised by both their great grandparents as well as their grandparents. She learned to help out around the house and take on responsibility at a young age. Growing up with elderly relatives was normal for her and she grew very close to them. She learned of hope from her grandmother who at the age of 17 or 18 was one of the first people in the US to have a lung removed. She was also a breast cancer survivor. Determination, it seems, was in Tracy’s blood.
Her love for life and “bring it on” attitude developed over time and after high school, she decided to join the Army to learn to be strong and take care of herself. Her decision was met with skepticism by her family, especially her grandfather who had been a paratrooper in the Army himself. He came from a time when a woman’s place was in the home and he didn’t think she could do it. Tracy’s response? “Watch this”. And they did. She became a paratrooper like her grandfather, jumping out of airplanes, learning to survive, excel, run and work hard. She was proud of the fact that anything he did, she did too.
There was a lot of sexism in the military at the time which meant she had to work that much harder to prove that she belonged. Women were looked at as weaker. In basic training, they did an experiment with her group dividing it 50/50 with female and male trainees to see the effect women would have on the effectiveness of the training program. A lot of the male trainees thought she would bring them down, but she held her own, achieving the same standards as the men, oftentimes exceeding them. “Watch this!”
At the end of the first week, many trainees had quit, some of which came into the program fresh out of infantry school. They asked her how she made it through when they had not. She just told them, “I didn’t quit. I’m not extraordinary or anything, I just didn’t quit.” To her, that’s what it was all about: not quitting. Showing herself and her family back home that she could do it.
In 1997, she was assigned to an airborne unit out of Fort Bragg where she worked in communications. It was a predominantly male unit and because of that, she received a lot of unwanted attention. She wasn’t used to that and as a result, married right away. During her time with the unit, she had two children which kept her stateside. When she got out and went into the Army Reserves in 2000, her scores were high so they assigned her to the medical unit. She wasn’t sure it was a good idea because she felt she was more of a hands-on/front lines kind of person, however, she went anyway. At the height of 9/11 and between 2001-2003, her unit was placed on alert 3 times. This experience helped shape her and how she raised her kids because she was always on alert for the possibility of deployment.
During her time in the reserves, she worked as an administrator in the medical unit. Her job was to take care of the day to day tasks that needed to be done. She met with wounded soldiers who returned but were unable to return to civilian jobs yet. It was during this time that she met a young man who had just returned from overseas. His leg had been shot up by an AK47. He’d had 27 surgeries and lost 3 inches of his leg. He spoke of the painful rehabilitation that he’d been through and the struggles he experienced afterward. He said that the person who had the biggest effect on him was his physical therapist. She kept motivating him, encouraging him, and pushing him to keep going. She gave him hope that things would get better and they did.
Tracy felt inspired to do something to give back to these soldiers, to help them in some way. So many of them, active and retired, will live with this war for the rest of their lives. She didn’t have her bachelor’s degree yet and needed to start thinking about a long-term plan. It was then that the seed of physical therapy school had been planted.
Tracy left the Army in 2005, significantly impacted by the Iraq war and with a passion for helping others who returned from war forever changed, forever challenged.
As she contemplated her next move, she took a job at Saint Mary’s Hospital in Grand Rapids where she worked as a surgical tech assisting with surgeries. She worked there for a year and during this time, she became pregnant with her third child. Her mother asked what she wanted to do now that she was out of the Army. She told her she was thinking about becoming a doctor. Her mom told her she should’ve gotten better grades in high school because you have to be smart for that; she said that she wouldn’t be able to do that. Tracy’s response? “Watch this.”
Four months after the baby was born, she started school. She moved to Wisconsin with her husband and three children and attended the University of Wisconsin (Milwaukee). After years of hard work, she graduated with her Bachelor’s Degree in Kinesiology. However, it was a bittersweet time. She learned of her grandmother’s passing during her last semester and she was going through a divorce. She suddenly found herself with three kids to support, no house, and no family or support system. But, even with the odds against her, she challenged herself to get up and do what needed to be done. She worked the third shift at a factory and volunteered during the day. Once she got the volunteer hours she needed, she applied to 11 PT schools. She was accepted to graduate school at the University of Kentucky and away she went.
She moved to Kentucky, finished school, graduated with her Doctorate of Physical Therapy, and got remarried (to a Marine combat veteran). Then, instead of taking a breather, she started a one-year residency to become an Orthopedic Clinical Specialist. Still motivated and inspired by the soldiers she had met in the Army Reserves, she decided the best way to help them was to have all the tools and knowledge that she possibly could. And, she needed a new goal. Her “watch this” spirit burned bright and she needed to keep going, keep learning, keep growing. She also got certified in Dry Needling.
In addition to her educational and career ambitions and the “watch this” moments she has achieved with both, she has also achieved many personal goals including two marathons. In August, she completed a 100 mile challenge for Stop Soldier Suicide, an organization that raises awareness and funds to help support service members, veterans, and military families.
When asked if she feels fearless, she explained that she doesn’t think that there is anyone who is realistically fearless. When she was jumping out of airplanes in the Army, she was told that the person who says they are fearless is the scariest person on the plane because they are going to make mistakes. Fear is input to her, almost like a friend in the passenger seat who points out danger ahead. But, she never lets it drive. She doesn’t let it have control. If she is afraid of something, she will do it just to conquer the fear. “Doesn’t always mean I make the best choices,” she laughed. “But I don’t want to miss an opportunity because I’m afraid.”
It’s with this same spirit that she treats her physical therapy patients. Always encouraging them, motivating them to push past their fears and achieve their physical goals. She especially likes working with veterans because she speaks the same language and has the same understanding of what they’ve been through and what lies before them. Her mission has come full circle, I’d say. From her days in the Army Reserves speaking with soldiers about their injuries and issues, to being the one to help them move past them. Step by step, goal by goal, she helps them achieve their own “watch this” moments.