Army veteran Clinton Foriska left the military at age 27 with a dream of becoming a doctor and serving fellow veterans. Four years later, he’s set to graduate from the University of Washington Bothell with a near-perfect GPA, and on his way to medical school in Yakima.

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When he was discharged from the Army in 2013, Clinton Foriska’s formal education included only a high-school diploma.

It wasn’t much, for a guy who likes to say he didn’t come from much. But Foriska, who was 27 at the time, thought he could do more.

“I wanted to do something extraordinary — I always wanted to be a doctor. But I never knew how to get there.”

Four years later, he has found his path.

He’s set to graduate from the University of Washington Bothell June 10 with a near-perfect GPA. Earlier this month, he was awarded UW Bothell’s Chancellor’s Medal, given to inspirational students who overcome significant obstacles.

And this fall, he’ll start his first year of medical school at Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences, a private four-year school for osteopathic medicine in Yakima. He hopes to work with veterans living in rural areas when he graduates.

At UW Bothell, Foriska is known for his sense of humor and get-the-work-done approach to college. “Ultimately, he’s a problem-solver,” said Heather Galindo, an instructor of biological sciences at UW Bothell.

“He has that ability to take a humorous approach to things, which can put people at ease, but he can also be very sincere,” she said. “For veterans in rural areas, he’s going to be a really great fit for that population.”

Phillip Carpenter, a professor at UW Bothell, got to know Foriska well. Foriska, as a soldier, “experienced a version of life that many citizens won’t ever be able to relate in the first perspective,” Carpenter said in an email. “Rather than become hardened and pessimistic, the adversity inspired him to help others after he was discharged.”

Foriska was a combat soldier stationed in Iraq in 2009 and 2010, and he looks healthy and strong today. But he suffers from a range of physical ailments, including back and jaw pain, hearing loss and ankle injuries. He is considered 100 percent disabled, and has been medically retired by the Army.

He is the son of a Vietnam vet and says his father, who has Parkinson’s, is among veterans who haven’t received “the best care” from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“I would like to make a difference.”

Good training

Foriska grew up on a rural ranch near Mount Shasta in California. His parents were divorced, and his father moved the family to a double-wide trailer where, for a stretch of time, they had no electricity or running water. It would turn out to be good training for soldiering in Iraq.

Military service ran in the family, and for Foriska and his two brothers, joining the military always seemed the obvious choice after high school. Although Foriska was in the top 1 percent of his high-school class and enjoyed chemistry and math, “college was something we’d only seen in the movies,” he said.

When he was 17, he enlisted in the Army. He became an infantryman and member of a Stryker combat team, which was deployed to Iraq in 2009 and 2010. In the Diyala province of Iraq, his battalion worked at night on combat patrols — kicking down doors and raiding homes in search of insurgents in Baqubah, a large city and capital of the province.

Clinton Foriska served on a Stryker squad in Baqubah, Iraq. In this image, their vehicle is stuck in the mud.  (Clinton Foriska)
Clinton Foriska served on a Stryker squad in Baqubah, Iraq. In this image, their vehicle is stuck in the mud. (Clinton Foriska)

He served as his platoon leader’s bodyguard for nearly every mission, operated the radio telephone his squad used to communicate with higher command and served as gun-team leader. His squad assisted the Iraqi army and police, often in training.

“I definitely had a thrilling job,” he said.

But he also saw terrible things during the heat of battle. Two men in his squad were killed during one of the deployments, and many others were wounded. Foriska developed post-traumatic stress disorder. The demands of the job were exhausting, both physically and mentally.

During his 10 years in the military, he became increasingly interested in medicine, and eventually helped lead classes for his platoon on combat lifesaving. It was then that he began thinking about a career in medicine.

So when he returned from Iraq and was stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Foriska began taking math, physics and chemistry at South Puget Sound Community College in Olympia.

He’d been a good student at his rural high school, but when he began taking college classes he realized that school hadn’t prepared him well. He was intimidated by the level of academics and realized he needed to do a lot of work to catch up.

So Foriska hunkered down and became a student. “As an infantryman, you’re trained to never quit, to persevere,” he said.

Behind his determination was the experience of his father at the Department of Veterans Affairs and its hospitals. In one instance when his dad was injured, he had to be taken by helicopter 500 miles to a hospital in Portland because there was no VA care closer.

Foriska’s vocational military counselor — the man who will decide whether the GI bill pays for Foriska’s path through medical school — insisted Foriska first earn a 4.0 GPA in college. (Foriska has earned a 3.97.) He is still waiting, and if the Army won’t pay, he’ll take out loans and use scholarships to pay tuition.

Clinton Foriska works in Iraq as a bodyguard for his platoon leader, at right.  (Clinton Foriska)
Clinton Foriska works in Iraq as a bodyguard for his platoon leader, at right. (Clinton Foriska)

He had stuck to his plan, making top grades through his first two quarters at UW Bothell, when life threw him a new curve: a diagnosis of testicular cancer. Foriska had to withdraw for the fall quarter of 2017 while he underwent surgery and treatment.

I’ve still got my plan, he said to himself. I could dwell on having cancer, but time doesn’t stop for anyone.

Foriska returned to classes in winter 2017 and applied for admission to Pacific Northwest University. He was in class one day when his phone rang; it was the director of admissions at Pacific Northwest. In his excitement, he ran out of the class to take the call. When he came back in, he announced to his classmates that he’d just gotten into medical school. Everyone in class was thrilled.

He calls it “one of the most exciting phone calls that I have ever received.”

Foriska and his wife, Jamie, whom he met at a Green Lake Starbucks, will move to Yakima this fall with their son, Matthias. His brother Kyle is going to move with them to help the family settle in.

But before that happens, on June 10, he’ll graduate summa cum laude — with the highest distinction — from the UW Bothell.

“I feel someone’s watching over me,” he said. “I’m definitely blessed.”