FREDRICKSBURG, Texas –
“Dear patients, I am about to get called up to serve overseas. I will be back …” is how the typical letter reads from Col. Paul Phillips III, 63, a U.S. Army Reserve surgeon and civilian orthopedic surgeon.
Patients Don, 77, and Alice Huston, 78, of Boerne, have been under Dr. Phillips’s care at Hill Country Memorial (HCM) Medical Group through two deployments and readily agree he’s worth the wait. “I don’t think they have enough good doctors like him, and our Soldiers need the best care,” declares Alice, for whom Phillips performed a knee replacement procedure in 2016.
The Huston’s say they have no qualms scheduling care while accommodating Phillips’ Reserve commitments, because they believe its part of what makes him such a caring doctor. “I think the integrity and everything that comes from the training in the (military) service, especially going through as a doctor, it’s so specially important,” says Don, a National Guard veteran, who also recently underwent a knee replacement procedure.
During a 25-year U.S. Army Reserve (USAR) career, Phillips has 10 deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Germany, Africa, and Haiti. Along with being part of the Orthopedic Surgery Department at HCM in his hometown here, he’s chief of Professional Services with the 228th Combat Support Hospital (CSH) based in Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston.
His letters, in a larger sense, epitomize what it means to be a reservist, serving both country and community. And for Phillips, they represent the fulfillment of a more personal duty, that of a small-town doctor.
“This has been kind of a dream of mine to be able to come back home and serve this community,” Phillips says, “probably with the same passion I serve in the military.”
It’s a passion well-learned by the third-generation physician. His grandfather, Paul Sr., and father, Paul Jr., both veterinarians, practiced medicine in the rural, central Texas towns known as Texas Hill Country. The family’s roots in the area date back to the 1800’s, says Phillips, who lives with his wife on land originally owned by the family.
His namesakes established a legacy of service that Phillips has followed. His father served in the Pacific during World War II as an Army first sergeant with an all-black quartermaster unit and was among the first classes to graduate from the Tuskegee University School of Veterinary Medicine (now the College of Veterinary Medicine), the first such school for blacks, according to the university’s website. In fact, Phillips says, his father actually helped build the original veterinary school facility on the Tuskegee, Ala., campus.
Although his interest in medicine first developed while assisting his father and grandfather with their animal patients, Phillips says he had a different path in mind.
“Everyone thought I was going to become a veterinarian, but I used to go with my father and grandfather on trips to the farms and ranches here around Fredericksburg and Gillespie County,” he explains, “and I knew quite early on that that was not what I wanted to do.”
As his interest in medicine grew, so too did his zeal for football.
“So, I wanted to do both medicine and play football,” says Phillips, still a sturdy 6’4” decades after his playing days. “Football was my passion.”
He starred at Fredericksburg High School and was a stand-out linebacker for Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State University in San Marcos) where he graduated in 1977 with an undergraduate degree in education, which he called his “backup plan” for medical school. “The dream was to be able to play football during the season and go to medical school in the off-season, which almost happened, but God had a different path for me,” says Phillips, in the calm yet deliberate way he speaks.
After a brief stint as a free agent with the National Football League’s Baltimore Colts, he pursued medicine full time. Phillips taught and coached football, track and basketball at a San Antonio middle school for three years until he was accepted into medical school at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, eventually earning his Doctorate of Medicine.
He began his military career after completing his orthopedic residency at the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in LA and hand fellowship training in San Diego. In 1995, Phillips moved his family to Arlington, Texas, where he practiced as an orthopedic surgeon with a civilian medical group for 20 years.
All the while, Phillips made his way through the ranks as a U.S. Army Reserve medical officer, first with the 94th CSH in Seagoville, then with the 2nd Medical Brigade in San Pablo, Calif., and finally with the 228th CSH. He wholeheartedly admits balancing the two with family life is not easy but well worth it, saying, “Yes, you have to make some hard decisions sometimes as to where your time is going to be spent.”
Nonetheless, Phillips says he and other reserve soldiers make it work, explaining how he and his wife, who is an emergency room physician, have successfully raised four children – an orthopedic surgeon, two social workers, and an engineering student, ranging in ages from 34 to 21-years old.
Because his path into Army medicine wasn’t always smooth, Phillips hopes he’s an example to others contemplating entering the military medical field.
“It took me three years to get into medical school, three years to get into the orthopedic program, and I was not top,” says Phillips. “But I worked really hard, and I had people who took a chance on me then and saw my dedication to this profession and gave me an opportunity.
“So for that I feel obligated to give back to the next generation that’s coming in. If I can help them, mentor them, introduce them to somebody at a program that can help facilitate them continue with their dream, that’s my goal.”